ocial media is the de facto “town square,” a place where citizens the world over can debate or share ideas and opinions on a public forum. Unfortunately, today’s digital town square has become a global playground for the rampant spread of unreliable and unmoderated information, largely due to a business model that rewards clickbait.
While the spread of misinformation isn’t a new phenomenon, the digital age has accelerated how quickly it can spread, oftentimes leaving reliable sources to play catch up. Studies reveal that users are cognizant of misinformation campaigns on topics like climate change and vaccinations, and we have seen the negative impact in countries like Brazil, Ethiopia, and India where traditional social platforms spread hate. Unfortunately, the business model fans these flames, with algorithms amplifying misinformation and inflammatory content, and ultimately prioritizing profit over people and society.
Learning from Clean Energy
Until the climate crisis became a mainstream concern, the term “energy” almost exclusively referred to fossil fuel-based energy. Now, companies have prioritized renewable energy sources, creating a robust “clean energy” industry. Similarly, misinformation online has become another global crisis, polluting our feeds with hate and conspiracy. In order to combat this crisis, we need both a behavioral change and a new business model that promotes fact-based and respectful content: a ‘clean social’ media.
As it stands, social media tends to amplify the loudest voices and marginalize truthful content. Much as we have had to change behavior and financially incentivize clean energy, government and industry must work together to encourage a sustainable internet that contributes to social cohesion and stability. Public-private partnerships in the renewable energy space have pushed us towards solar energy, Evs, and more, so governments need to begin working in concert with the private sector to identify ways to support a transformation to a “clean social” that reduces online threats.
Transforming the Business Model
A new report by Oxford’s Internet Institute finds that misinformation has a greater impact on users than reliable information. Instead of taking steps to fight misinformation, amplifying reliable content can lend greater credence to factual information. The recent triumph of the Marcos family’s disinformation campaigns in the Philippines exemplify platforms’ inability to combat unreliable information.
Since its inception, big social media’s design has prioritized profits. We need to rethink the traditional social media business model and transform it into one that puts people over profits. Current algorithms and content moderation must be redesigned with the public good, ethical imperatives, and integrity at their core. By incentivizing social media giants or digital “town squares” to prioritize healthy discussion over divisive debates, we can move closer to a cleaner social environment.
This approach is pragmatic as much as it is altruistic, considering how better moderation boosts website traffic and increases conversion rates. In fact, less moderation does not attract more users, as per popular belief; the opposite is true. We witnessed firsthand how Twitter’s newer, looser content moderation rules were followed by an uptick of hate speech and a decline in user numbers. More loosely moderated platforms still only have a small market share, Truth Social has 3% of market share among social media users, despite 25% of social media users knowing about it. The most popular platforms have superior moderation comparatively and attract the highest user bases.
Collaborating with Intention
While users and platforms can improve their practices, meaningful change cannot occur in a vacuum. Any long-term solution must include the building of partnerships with reliable sources of information by engaging users, policymakers, NGOs, platforms, and other stakeholders. The close collaboration between online platforms and information creators, whether NGOs or academic and other researchers (data scientists, social scientists, and more) could put pressure on chokepoints, including those that relate to governance. Corporate social responsibility and how brands spend their money on certain platforms can promote or contradict their ESG goals. With 90% of Twitter’s revenue in advertising, advertisers have the power to force the platform to change its ways.
In its current state, social media is a divisive force in society that has also become a detriment to the democratic process. Platforms need to reevaluate the algorithms they use with input from institutions and sources of reliable information. Collaboration among platforms, NGO’s and researchers should be encouraged to equitably develop a framework for combating misinformation. More engagement from corporations who sustain the high revenue enjoyed by social media platforms would also force them to reevaluate their practices. While a utopian town square with free and respectful debate may be too idealistic, it is integral that we take steps to curtail misinformation and disinformation. Only with the collective participation of users, platforms, policymakers and other stakeholders can we make Clean Social a reality.