From Antitrust to Zoom, Virtual is a Mainstay in 2021


In 2020, digital was a double-edged sword. It brought us closer together as in-person meetings and events moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it divided us even more as misinformation and hate speech circulated dangerously on various social media platforms.

As we enter a new year, digital will continue to play a large role in our daily lives. Trying to navigate through it will be like swimming in murky waters, but E&P examines what media professionals should expect as we head further into 2021 and beyond.

Online Misinformation and Violence

For four years, critics of President Donald Trump called for social media companies to ban or suspend his accounts. It finally happened on Jan. 6 after his supporters stormed and entered the U.S. Capitol to protest an election they believed had been stolen. Following the chaotic event, tech companies acted against Trump and suspended his accounts.

Facebook and Instagram banned him from posting “indefinitely.” Twitter locked Trump out of his account for 12 hours, but in the end, decided to permanently ban him two days after the incident at the Capitol “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” Twitch and Snapchat disabled his accounts, and even Shopify took down two stores affiliated with Trump, as reported by Axios.

After the destruction at the Capitol, the New York Times reported it was social networking services like Parler and Gab that played a large role in organizing the attack on the  building. Users shared “which tools to bring help pry open doors,” and people posted about carrying guns into the building. Platforms like these have grown popular among far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists as other platforms like Twitter and Facebook have tightened their moderation.

Furthermore, a recent poll by NPR/Ipsos indicates that misinformation is gaining traction, and conspiracy theories are going mainstream. For example, out of the 1,115 U.S. adults surveyed, 17 percent of them believed this statement to be true: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.” Additionally, 40 percent of respondents believed “COVID-19 was created in a lab in China.”

As the vaccine began to roll out last month, health and science misinformation also began to run rampant online. In December, Facebook announced that they would begin removing false claims about the COVID-19 vaccines that have been “debunked by public health experts,” according to The Verge. Later the same month, The Verge also reported that Twitter will remove tweets making false or misleading claims about COVID-19 vaccinations. YouTube made its own announcement in  October that it would remove videos from its platform containing misinformation about the vaccines, as reported by Reuters.

But will these new policies be enough to curb the misinformation surrounding the virus as well as the vaccine? Experts and politicians don’t think so.

Speaking to Politico, Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, described social media companies’ response as “incomplete” and pointed out that the efforts were further challenged by logistical challenges, like Facebook relying more heavily on automation for content moderation due to the pandemic.

Currently, social media companies can’t be held liable for the spread of misinformation by third parties under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but that may change as many have urged the newly elected President Joe Biden to take steps to combat problem.

How We Work

To prevent the spread of COVID-19 and for their own health and safety, employees around the world saw their physical offices close (some permanently) so they could work from home remotely.

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last October, only 20 percent of employed adults worked from home before the coronavirus outbreak all or most of the time, 71 percent were currently working from home and 54 percent would want to work from home after the coronavirus outbreak ends. 

In the final months of 2020, it was evident that many presumed teleworking would increase this year. Last fall, Enterprise Technology Research released a survey which stated information technology decision-makers expected permanent remote work to double to 34.4 percent of their companies’ workforces in 2021 compared to 16.4 percent prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Another report by Upwork, which surveyed hiring managers, revealed that they believed 26.7 percent of the workforce would be fully remote by the end of 2021. The report also stated that “by 2025, 36.2 million Americans will be remote, an increase of 16.8 million people from pre-pandemic rates.”

Additionally, 2020 pushed conferences, events, meetings and more to go virtual, and we can expect the trend to continue this year.

A survey by MarTech revealed that “more than 66 percent…said that they would only attend online or virtual events in the fourth quarter without a proven vaccine in place.” However, even with the vaccine being rolled out, it will take some time before it reaches everyone, and the lingering impact of the pandemic may leave people skittish to attend a crowded, in-person gathering. Forgoing travel and boarding expenses, virtual events and conferences are also the more affordable option for companies.

The shift to virtual also drove virtual connectivity tools into the mainstream. For example, Zoom, the then-nine-year-old videoconferencing service, boomed last year as people turned to the platform for virtual meetings, school lessons and more. On March 23, the  Zoom app was downloaded 2.13 million times worldwide; two months prior the app had just under 56,000 global downloads in a day, according to CNN.

Developing technology will also make virtual happenings more appealing. Ina Fried, chief technology correspondent at Axios, wrote last month that innovation is already underway. For example, Zoom added necessary security features and Microsoft Teams experimented with a “together mode” last year, which included venues like virtual coffee shops.

Augmented Reality Becomes the Norm

Because consumers are mostly limited to shopping online now, more brands have turned to augmented reality (AR) technology to offer a real-world shopping experience.

According to The New York Times, Snapchat “began adding shopping filters in June and now offers augmented reality try-on experiences for luxury brands like Gucci and Dior, and makeup tutorials from the cosmetics maker Too Faced.” The Times also pointed out that other companies such as Amazon experimented with AR as well, using the technology to display furniture in consumers’ homes. Other companies also created apps solely for trying things on like Wanna Kicks for sneakers.

And of course, Instagram offers AR filters and experiences to users. For example, Nike launched several filters that placed their logo on to a user’s face, and an experience that allowed users to display Nike’s Air VaporMax shoe into their homes, while providing details of the product.

Deborah Weinswig, the chief executive of Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm that specializes in retail and technology, told the Times that “users stayed engaged with augmented reality experiences for three times as long as they did with traditional e-commerce websites.”

Even if users are not actually purchasing goods or services from these platforms, they still interact with the brand and share videos and photos of that experience with friends and family, which can still be valuable.

As shopping online became more standard in 2020, Selligent reported that 36 percent of consumers were shopping online weekly, an increase from 28 percent before the pandemic, and 28 percent of consumers said when life returns to a “new normal,” they plan to continue mostly shopping online, while 39 percent said they would shop both online and in-store. Consequently, we may see more advertisers to flock to social media platforms to utilize AR in order to reach these new online shoppers.

Like the retail industry, news organizations will also utilize more AR to help news consumers engage with content.

Last year, USA TODAY launched eight AR experiences. A few examples include an AR guide to flattening the curve amid the coronavirus pandemic, where users can access the guide on the newspaper’s app and play through different scenarios to practice social distancing. On its social media, USA TODAY launched an Instagram filter featuring mask designs users could try on virtually.

According to the news organization, this kind of immersive storytelling saw notable numbers: average engagement time was 125 seconds, monthly average views were 142.7 thousand (up from 197 percent the previous year), total views were 1.3 million (up 288 percent from the previous year), and impressions were 15.3 million.

 TechCrunch also reported that The New York Times recently launched “Shattered Crosswords,” a new AR-enabled game on Instagram, where players can solve clues by finding spinning broken crosswords pieces in AR and ultimately find words hidden among the shards above the puzzle.

Last fall, the Times also struck a partnership with Facebook to co-develop AR filters and effects on Instagram. The paper even created a dedicated AR Lab team within its research and development unit. According to Axios, one of the first filters included visual interactive pieces regarding California wildfires. By holding up their phones, users were able to learn about the air quality in California.

“You won’t be consuming information like this forever,” Karthik Patanjali, the paper’s special projects editor, said in a Times article. “It’s not going to be on a sliver of glass forever. It’s going to be around you. These are all steps toward that future we’re preparing ourselves for. The world is 3-D. Why shouldn’t the information we present also be?”

The Rise of the Triopoly

It’s not surprising that Google and Facebook continue to dominate digital advertising, but recently, Amazon has surged ahead, and many anticipate a potential triopoly is in the making.

The shift to more online shopping in 2020 certainly helped Amazon’s growth. The company’s ad revenue jumped 51 percent to $5.4 billion in the third quarter from the previous year as marketers sought to reach online shoppers, as reported by Marketing Dive. Compare that to Google’s 9.8 percent to $37.1 billion year over year rise, and Facebook’s 22 percent to $21.2 billion, Marketing Dive also stated. In 2021, we can expect to see Amazon continue to grow at a rapid pace as consumers increasingly turn to the online seller for items such as groceries, toilet paper and cleaning products.

Following quarter one and two results, eMarketer estimated that Amazon will earn $14.55 billion in net U.S. digital ad revenues and claim 10.2 percent of digital ad spending. The research company anticipated that Google will have 29.8 percent of the stake and Facebook 23.5 percent. Surely, we’ll see increased competition between these three tech companies for ad dollars.

Amazon is continuing to introduce new ad products including “more ways for advertisers to use video and other opportunities for advertising higher in the funnel,” eMarketer reported. Furthermore, eMarketer stated the company is also working to offer more measurement tools to push its advantage as targeting-and attribution-related data becomes harder to come by.

 According to CivicScience, when consumers begin a search for a product online, 47 percent start on Amazon. As a result, Google is competing for the attention of online consumers. For example, in October, the company unveiled several search-based features. One of them included updates to Google Lens, an image-recognition tool that allowed people to tap and hold an image in the Google app or Chrome browser in Android to find it in online stores, as explained by Marketing Dive. The feature will soon be added to the Google app on iOS. Marketing Dive goes on to explain that this update means that mobile markets will need to optimize their websites for visual discovery and ensure that their product listings stand out. The publication predicts this could eventually lead to Google letting marketers “buy visual search criteria the same way they can bid for keywords in Google Search.”

Unfortunately, those hurt in this scenario are other media and tech businesses that want to offer advertisers an alternative solution to these companies. However, some are still fighting the good fight like Vox Media. Last fall, the digital media company launched Concert Ad Manger, a self-service tool that allows brands to build and deploy advertising campaigns across Vox’s network of premium publishers.

Antitrust Issues

According to CNBC, the Supreme Court adopted the “consumer welfare” standard in 1979. Under this standard, an act is deemed anti-competitive if a business’ actions cause “consumer harm,” such as causing products to be more expensive or stifling innovation. Subsequently, few mergers have been challenged, including Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp. Now the repercussions are beginning to unfold, and antitrust watchdogs are looking to remedy the issue.

In December, Facebook was hit with twin lawsuits from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 48 attorneys general, which seek to break up the tech giant. The lawsuits claim that the company engaged in anti-competitive behavior to stamp out its rivals.

In addition, Google was slapped with three antitrust lawsuits last fall. The U.S. Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit, claiming that the company has used anti-competitive methods to protect its monopoly over search—stifling competition and innovation from smaller upstart rivals. A coalition of attorneys general from 38 states also filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, which essentially makes the same argument as the DOJ lawsuit but adds its own accusations. A small group of states, led by Texas, filed a lawsuit that challenges Google’s advertising practices.

Facebook and Google aren’t the only tech giants facing antitrust troubles. Amazon and Apple are also under investigation by both the Justice Department and the FTC. Moreover, House Democrats recently unveiled their nearly 450-page antitrust report finding that all four companies hold monopoly power.

Subcommittee member Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told CNBC she thought “‘significant legislation’ acting on the report’s recommendations can be introduced within three to six months of the next legislative session.” She is confident that antitrust reform will be a focus heading into the year, “despite all the other legislative tasks that will be at the top of the agenda,” CNBC reported.

Although the cases against Big Tech are finally piling up, it will be some time before we see the results. There have been many struggles to bring a case against them because of their complexity, and it’s clear that antitrust regulation remains too broad to tackle tech’s various problems. So, while we await the conclusions, look out for reform of antitrust laws. This is a moment of reckoning for antitrust legislature—one that could decide the next several decades.


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