By Steven Romero
If you were to stand on a street corner in the 1970s and shout about how the United States never actually landed on the moon but instead pulled off the most elaborate scheme in history, you probably wouldn’t attract a large crowd. But if you were to do the same thing in 2019 using social media, you would have the ability to spread the exact same rhetoric to a larger group of people, increasing the audience that would have to decide whether to ignore your message or investigate it further. The spread of misinformation on social media is just one reason why there has been a dramatic decline in overall trust towards these giant corporations. The oversaturation of content, growing alienation of users, and constant overreach into personal data have also contributed to this distrustful sentiment. It is clear now that social media companies must make significant changes to their strategies in order to avoid losing many of their users permanently.
The sheer amount of content amassed by these platforms is staggering, and it continues to grow. Perhaps the most mind-boggling of them all is Facebook, whose 2012 IPO revealed that it was storing over 100 petabytes of media information. For reference, 1 petabyte is equivalent to 100 million gigabytes, and just a single gigabyte is enough to store a standard-definition movie or several hundred songs. Unsurprisingly, this enormous library of data is not limited to family vacation photos and forwards from grandma. With an unprecedented user base of over 2 billion (and growing), the platform is constantly flooded with misinformation, propaganda, and hate speech. It is harder than ever to scroll through your personalized feed without encountering political commentary or a far-fetched conspiracy theory. As more people from different age, social, and economic groups converge on multiple platforms, these concerns become more alarming. It is one thing for a conspiracy to cycle within a closed group; it is entirely different for a 12-year-old to stumble upon it. While the rate of information flow continues to skyrocket without an equally intense rise of the importance of checking source credibility, this issue will continue to enter the radar of the young, old, uneducated, and many more.
Although many platforms are struggling to regulate the high volume of data that is shared by their users, Facebook is having perhaps the most difficult time. In February, The Verge’s Casey Newton broke an explosive story on how Facebook tries to scrub inappropriate content from the news feeds of its 2.3 billion monthly users. It is, of course, no easy task to moderate such a large amount of speech. Newton’s piece reveals how Facebook employs an “army” of low-paid workers under constant, intense supervision as they sift non-stop through content reported to Facebook as problematic, much of it overtly violent, disturbing, or conspiratorial. Newton’s story underscores that the sheer volume of content on Facebook, as well as on other platforms like Twitter and Instagram, is proving difficult to regulate and shows no signs of slowing down.
Beyond the information overload flying at users in a constant stream, there have been other ways that social media companies have failed to strengthen their relationships with users. One possibility for this growing alienation is an increasing level of similarity between platforms, stemming from the borrowing of ideas and even acquisitions of entire platforms by larger companies. According to Suzie Shaw from Ad News, many of these social media platforms first reached a wide audience due to their uniqueness. She says: “platforms used to be distinctive, and had a very clear role in consumers’ lives. Facebook showed updates from your friends and family, Twitter was news at the speed of culture, Instagram was a portrait of the life you wish you had, and Snapchat was for salacious behaviour that left no digital footprint.” But finding the next big thing proved increasingly difficult, so companies began to borrow popular features from other platforms. While this allowed users to do more than ever before on some of their favorite apps, it also took away a part of what made the platform enticing in the first place. If all platforms were slowly becoming more similar, what was the purpose of using any one platform in particular?
Not only were features being exchanged, but some of the bigger fish in the pond were swallowing their competition instead of fighting them. The biggest example of this behavior remains Facebook’s massive $1 billion purchase of Instagram in 2012, a key turning point in the social media industry. A flurry of mimicry has progressed over recent years; Instagram added “stories” that were nearly identical to the feature first found on Snapchat, Twitter added live photo and video capabilities to compete with Instagram, and Facebook improved its search engine to compete with Google. The race to profit off the maximum amount of content has only been accelerating. With so many platforms in the market, each company is locked in a never-ending attempt to capture as many pieces of the overall population on social media.
So what needs to change for these companies to reverse this downward trend? Despite lucrative profitability, the landscape of these platforms has changed to the point where they can no longer sustain their users’ trust over the long term. A 2018 survey published in Axios reveals that just 40 percent of Americans believe that social media helps democracy and free speech, down from 53 percent the year before. This change is concerning because social media’s foundation was built on connecting people and ideas across the world as an avenue for speech, not as an authoritative presence. Facebook’s under-the-radar approach, which involves delegating incoming content to an underpaid contract company in order to save profits, demonstrates how they are failing to properly represent appropriate speech on their platform. A larger team with high compensation, as well as better employee services to deal with difficult reactions to content, would go a long way in keeping Facebook protected from hateful and heinous content. Other platforms would equally benefit from holding their content teams in as high of a regard as their software engineers, who sit in cushy offices and take home some of the biggest paychecks. Furthermore, companies would do well to return to their roots, either by removing features and simplifying their platform or by emphasizing what drew their dedicated user base in the first place. Both of these solutions are easier said than done, however, due largely in part to corporate greed and the difficulty of integrating change into an increasingly complicated application.
Only time will truly tell if social media companies will respond with enough momentum to satisfy users in the future, but it seems clear that as long as they remain highly profitable, not much will change. If it is more practical in the short-term for YouTube and Facebook to promote questionable content in exchange for higher payouts from advertisers, then the trend will continue. If Twitter sees continuous revenue growth and an expanding user base, will they care if a lot of the new accounts are robots that exist only to spread propaganda? They most likely will not. In the modern world, social media can make people feel like they are vulnerable and disconnected from the content creators themselves. For many users, social media has shifted away from an intimate way of sharing their thoughts and feelings or connecting with others to a cash cow for greedy giants who fail to look out for users’ best interests. As long as money is the primary motivator, these platforms will continue to lose traction until they eventually fall out of favor with even the most dedicated of users.