By Ritesh Mehta
A lot has been said recently about how social media, and the internet at large has been at the root of everything that’s wrong with the world. The internet and social media by themselves can’t really cause any good or harm in the world or in our lives. It’s the best mirror we have got to show us what we are as a society, city, state, country, or the world. So if your newsfeed, ephemeral stories, or online world in general feels appaling, the blame might be our to share collectively.
That being said, world’s leading social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc do carry a certain amount of responsibility given that billions of people everyday rely on them to learn and understand what is going on in the world. That responsibility is not to weed out every piece of fake news or hateful speech from their platforms.
If you don’t want to see fake news, hate speech, or anything you don’t agree with, unfollow or unfriend people who share such content. Lack of encouragement will quickly lead to reduced virality for unwanted content. Tech companies also seem to be doing a good job of taking violating content that’s reported to them. I would know – I spent the last 14 years at Google and Facebook building teams, systems, and processes that deals with that.
The real responsibility that leading social media platforms carry is to expand the reach of high quality information to as many people as possible. Facebook is headed this way with Mark Zuckerberg talking about a new way to feature news on Facebook. It is only wise for all tech platforms to do something along the similar lines. Also, this shouldn’t be limited to news. It needs to extend to all sources of high quality information.
Let me paint a picture of what this could look like if done well, and how it can make the world a better place. There are several sources of high quality information like trusted news outlets, governments, academics, community organizations, think tanks, civil society, etc.
Among these, news outlets are the most prolific content creators and have the widest reach so let’s use that as an example. Assume 10 crore Indians every day rely on Facebook and YouTube to watch and read news from hundreds of news outlets that exist in India. The challenge they face at the moment is, the users have to like or subscribe to a specific set of pages/channels to see content from them in their feeds regularly. Very few people, including me, will opt to hear from news outlets that offer up a very different ideology.
Therefore, most of these 10 crore people continue to hear and read news that reconfirm their confirmation biases. What the social media platforms should do differently is to curate the news experience to expose these 10 crore people to high quality news on a regular basis. The goal here should not be to get rid of confirmation bias, that’s an impossible task.
The goal here should be to use the power of these platforms to expose citizens to the best available source of information. What I am recommending is a product solution, and here is how it can work.
Facebook and Google will have to exercise judgement and pick what they consider to be the best sources of news across India’s major languages – 10 sources per language max. They will not get this right in the beginning. People will complain of left or right leaning bias and the tech companies will have to find a way to work through the noise. I also doubt there are more than 10 sources of great news content in each of the languages so that number shouldn’t present a problem.
Once they come up with a list and have an agreement with these news outlets in place, they should create a news hub where users can come and consume curated content in the languages they choose to. It’s a pull mechanism, and not a push mechanism – this is the most important difference from how news is delivered today.
It puts the user in charge of the choice – whether they want to go and consume high quality content outside of their feeds. It doesn’t depend on some advanced algorithm that predicts what a specific user will want, and what she is most likely to click on. This solution solves for one thing only – easy access to high quality, curated information (news in this example) if a user wishes to do so. There are a couple of big challenges of this approach, of course.
First one is, news outlets that get picked to be featured can have an upper hand over the ones that didn’t get picked because they will get significantly more exposure and distribution. That’s the advantage that quality should give you. If the other organizations want to be featured, they should use this as an incentive to shape up, and produce equal or better quality content that forces the social media platforms to include them in their news hub.
The second problem is, people may not choose to go to the news hub to consume this really high quality content. This is where the highly effective, data driven, experienced marketing teams of tech giants come into play. They have managed to solve harder challenges like privacy snafus, billions of dollars in fines for anti-competitive behavior, etc. Driving traffic to quality content should be easier than fighting public perception.
The third and possibly the toughest problem is, intent of the social media platforms. This has been tried before. Building products is expensive. News outlets are not going to be able to afford giving away high quality content for free. All of these, and more challenges can persuade social media platforms against investing or re-investing in promoting high quality content.
They should take the long view, and absorb the short term costs because it’s worth it. Here is proposed solution to each of the challenge laid out above. Tried before – like a lot of other tech solutions, may be this was ahead of its time?
May be they didn’t execute it as well as they could have. Paying content creators – eventually, this can be monetized the same way feeds are monetized. Eye balls will always equal revenue. Till then, tech companies can reach into their deep pockets and pay for it because it’s the right thing to do. For once, tech companies can give the content creators larger chunk of the revenue and take what they need to keep the lights on. Flip the popular 70/30 model in favor of content creators.
This alone has tremendous benefits in the long run. More money for publishers will in turn produce higher quality content at a faster rate. This can revive struggling organizations that don’t compromise on quality just because someone is willing to pay for a favorable piece.
Tech companies can shed their predatory image and build a more equal relationship with content creators. In all of this, the ultimate winners are users – they will have access to information that will make them be better informed. Hopefully that leads to better behavior, better decisions, and a better internet overall.
- The author is a tech policy consultant, and has spent 14 years at Facebook and Google as an early employee across US and India. The views expressed are author’s own.