During the summer of 2020, as COVID raged across the world and the US election cycle was at its peak, misinformation about both spread like wildfire across social media and this got us thinking: why does misinformation spread so rapidly? Why is this allowed to happen? Working in tech, we knew technology and resources weren’t the issue. As we dove deeper into the underlying issues, we realized the advertising based business model is the primary problem.
In the ad-based model, advertisers are the customers and you, the user, are the product. Platforms collect as much data about you as possible to serve highly targeted and profitable ads. But you aren’t going to come to their app just to look at ads, they need a way to keep you hooked to show you as many ads as possible. To maximize the amount of time you spend on their app (or “engagement” in industry parlance), platforms use algorithms which crunch all the data they have about you to show you the things you’re most likely to view, click on, or share.
You have little to no control over these algorithms. In our conversations with many social media users, this leads to them seeing more posts from brands and influencers, and less from friends and family. On the surface this seems OK - you get to see what you “want” to see.
Unfortunately, research shows that highly controversial content (such as misinformation, negative, or politically charged) tends to be much more engaging. When you think about it, this makes sense. We’re more likely to click on inflammatory headlines as they pique our interest and draw on our most sensitive emotions such as fear and anger. As a result, you tend to see more controversial content, which keeps you on the platform longer and drives higher ad revenue.
So if the key issue all stems from the ad-based business model, then what’s the solution? The obvious answer - the social media platforms responsible for the majority of misinformation could change their algorithms to optimize for something else; maybe positive emotions like happiness, hope, gratitude, etc. More important though is the money issue. If they stop optimizing for engagement they’ll make a lot less money from advertising.
A better option? Switch from the ad model to subscription to shift the incentive away from maximizing for engagement. There are significant advantages to the subscription model from a user experience perspective. Rather than monetize a user’s attention, users are the customers and top priority. Using this model we can do things that are counterintuitive in an ad-based model such as better privacy, no data collection, and giving users increased control over what they see. We don’t need to use algorithms optimized for engagement, rather we can just focus on building a product people will enjoy and have fun using. While we know it’ll be a tough sell getting people to pay for something they’ve always viewed as “free,” we’re confident that this approach will lead to a healthier social experience in the long run.
We’re building Privee so people can have an ad-free and privacy preserving social media experience made for them.
Feel free to share your thoughts, questions, and comments with us.
Some research on the spread of misinformation: