With a new study on social media engagement published this week, researchers at Cambridge University and New York University (NYU) have added another entry to the growing pile of evidence that shows there is something rotten with how platforms such as Facebook and Twitter promote polarizing, antagonistic content. By conducting an analysis of the ‘virality’ of 2.7 million Facebook and Twitter posts covering a five year span, the study co-authored by Steve Rathje and Sander van der Linden from Cambridge and Jay J. Van Bavel of NYU found Facebook and Twitter users were two-thirds more likely to engage with posts containing hostile language towards “political out-groups,” as opposed to positive content.
As the study’s authors make clear, these finding demonstrate in stark quantitative terms the failings of the current business model of platforms like Facebook, built around an “attention economy” that drives users towards extreme viewpoints in the interest of emotionally-charged engagement and the monetizable data that flows from it. The societal repercussions of this model have been observed the world over, driving polarization in the United States and Europe but also encouraging ethnic and religious discord from sub-Saharan Africa to South and Southeast Asia.
Social media’s potential for good – and for ill
Taking advantage of how these sites’ algorithms privilege surface-level engagement at the expense of deeper understanding, entire ecosystems of political influencers in countries such as the United States have built up followings that allow them to spread provocative and misleading – if not outright false – content to millions of people. These influencers have long understood and exploited the trend explored by the Cambridge-NYU study: namely, that negative partisanship and conflict are surefire ways of attracting new followers and keeping their attention.
And yet, for all of these shortcomings, social media as a whole continues to make significant contributions to global societies. Particularly over the past year, confinements and social distancing requirements put in place to combat the pandemic made online interactions one of the safest ways of maintaining connections with friends and loved ones, keeping up with the news, or simply getting through days of lockdown. That imbued social media platforms with unprecedented importance for both mental health and morale.
Nor is it possible to paint all social media platforms with the same broad brush. Instead, a new set of platforms are seeking to break out of the “attention economy” model pioneered by Facebook and Twitter, promising to capture the most beneficial aspects of online connections while doing away with the engagement and follower-driven algorithms responsible for social media’s most obvious downsides.
Yubo: a social media platform designed specifically for teens and young adults
Yubo, a France-based upstart in the social media space that specifically caters to users aged 13-25, rejects both traditional follower counts and the type of one-directional engagement that has become Facebook’s bread and butter. In April, Yubo launched a “friends not followers” campaign to underscore the site’s alternative approach to user-built communities and the fact that follower counts do not exist on the platform.
Neither do likes or shares. Given that platforms like Instagram are often blamed for exacerbating the intense social and peer pressure already placed on teenagers, and that scientific studies have found “like” functionalities are capable of altering neurological processes in teen brains, Yubo has consciously rejected longstanding maxims of how social media platforms are supposed to channel user engagement with content. Critically, Yubo does not sell ads, further distinguishing it from other social media platforms and removing any incentive to privilege the type of misleading, radicalizing content often seen on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Instead, Yubo’s users enter virtual spaces to meet and speak with one another directly, centering a level of interpersonal interaction that is almost unheard of on other platforms, at least between users who don’t already know each other. Since the start of the pandemic, teenagers and young adults have found themselves cut off from their offline social circles and unable to meet new people amidst a once-in-a-century health crisis; Yubo’s model offered an appealing way of reversing the usual narrative about making connections online.
Facebook fails to follow suit
With governments, tech experts, and social scientists all urging changes to how social media platforms operate, Yubo had learned from the experiences of companies like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to construct an experience that avoids their pitfalls. Unfortunately, while the repercussions of online polarization and the “attention economy” have been evident for years, the world’s largest social media networks might be too heavily invested in their existing model to change tack now.
Last November, for example, Facebook employees responded to the rapid proliferation of misinformation surrounding the 2020 US presidential election on the platform with a radical step for modifying the algorithm behind users’ news feeds. For a brief period of time, Facebook changed how its feeds rank content in accordance with the platform’s internal “news ecosystem quality” (NEQ) scores for media outlets, resulting in a “nicer news feed” where credible news organizations enjoyed pride of place and hyper partisan content saw its visibility curtailed. The change, however salutary, was destined to only be temporary, especially after Facebook’s own experiments found that limiting “bad for the world” content was also bad for its bottom line.
With no indication the world’s largest social media platforms will be changing their approach any time soon, a growing number of users are looking to sites which offer alternative experiences. For millions of young people, that has meant signing up to Yubo. For older generations, choices include the “social audio” app Clubhouse.
As these platforms grow in size and visibility, the conventional wisdom surrounding how social media networks are supposed to work will evolve. Sites like Facebook and Twitter could ultimately find their own approaches to be out of date.