The Conversation

Social media can in fact be made better, research shows

Ian Anderson, USC

Is social media designed to reward people for acting badly?

The answer is clearly yes, given that the reward structure on social media platforms relies on popularity, as indicated by the number of responses – likes and comments – a post receives from other users. Black-box algorithms then further amplify the spread of posts that have attracted attention.

Sharing widely read content, by itself, isn’t a problem. But it becomes a problem when attention-getting, controversial content is prioritized by design. Given the design of social media sites, users form habits to automatically share the most engaging information regardless of its accuracy and potential harm. Offensive statements, attacks on out groups and false news are amplified, and misinformation often spreads further and faster than the truth.

Our research shows that social media actually has the ability to create user habits to share high-quality content. After a few tweaks to the reward structure of social media platforms, users begin to share information that is accurate and fact-based.

The problem with habit-driven misinformation-sharing is significant. Facebook’s own research shows that being able to share already shared content with a single click drives misinformation. Thirty-eight percent of views of text misinformation and 65% of views of photographic misinformation come from content that has been reshared twice, meaning a share of a share of a share of an original post. The biggest sources of misinformation, such as Steve Bannon’s War Room, exploit social media’s popularity optimization to promote controversy and misinformation beyond their immediate audience. […]

Maintaining high levels of user engagement is crucial for the financial model of social media platforms. Attention-getting content keeps users active on the platforms. This activity provides social media companies with valuable user data for their primary revenue source: targeted advertising.

In practice, social media companies might be concerned that changing user habits could reduce users’ engagement with their platforms. However, our experiments demonstrate that modifying users’ rewards does not reduce overall sharing. Thus, social media companies can build habits to share accurate content without compromising their user base.

Platforms that give incentives for spreading accurate content can foster trust and maintain or potentially increase engagement with social media. In our studies, users expressed concerns about the prevalence of fake content, leading some to reduce their sharing on social platforms. An accuracy-based reward structure could help restore waning user confidence.

Our approach, using the existing rewards on social media to create incentives for accuracy, tackles misinformation spread without significantly disrupting the sites’ business model. This has the additional advantage of altering rewards instead of introducing content restrictions, which are often controversial and costly in financial and human terms.

Implementing our proposed reward system for news sharing carries minimal costs and can be easily integrated into existing platforms. The key idea is to provide users with rewards in the form of social recognition when they share accurate news content. This can be achieved by introducing response buttons to indicate trust and accuracy. By incorporating social recognition for accurate content, algorithms that amplify popular content can leverage crowdsourcing to identify and amplify truthful information.

Both sides of the political aisle now agree that social media has challenges, and our data pinpoints the root of the problem: the design of social media platforms.


Ian Anderson, USC

Categories Opinion The Conversation