Twitter recently got a lot of attention for fact checking President Trump’s Tweet. This path is dangerous at worst, futile at best.
These mega-platforms operate on attention as a currency. More re-tweets, more likes, more subscribers all mean more eyeballs on your content and on your life. The most successful YouTuber is the one who has the most subscribers. The biggest Twitter celebrity is the one with most followers.
It’s always a race to the top. You have to keep attracting a new audience every single day. That is when you reap the rewards. On Youtube you make actual money through ads as a consequence of having viewers watching the ads, on Twitter you win dozes of dopamine for social validation.
For attracting more eyeballs, you must say things that stand out from the rest of the information. Because, if you are saying the same thing everyone else is saying, it’s probably not interesting – not going to attract attention. A lot of people just don’t have original contrarian ideas. A lot of journalists don’t have access to on-ground news. How can you say interesting stuff? You cook it up. Same news, same idea but attractive polarized words. And it’s not only the creator’s fault. That is exactly what the audience wants too. They want something exciting everyday on Prime Time, they want to believe they live in a happening, ever changing society.
The truth is society changes not much at all for long periods of time. A lot of our lives are infact boring an mundane. An alien who visits earth after looking at our news channels, instagram profiles and reddit discussions will have a disappointing vacation. Nobody looks great all the time as their Instagram profile says, nobody is as fun and excited 24×7 as their vlogs might suggest, no one is as wise as they seem on Twitter.
You get the point. To win on social media, you have to show the world something different. For most people, that translates to sensational. Most sensational content is not a representation of truth. It leans on fake news, polarization, hate.
The system incentivizes fake news. You can duct-tape a few here and there, like what Twitter tried to do with Trump. But, you can’t fix the underlying problem.
We have far too much stimulation. We always have friends eating at fancy restaurants, colleagues sky diving, relatives being politically knowledgeable. It’s all one large illusion.
But that’s what we seem to want. We want an escape from the mundane life that we all live. We all admit that we live a boring life. Our escape is on the internet. My street might have crickets, but my Instagram feed has a gala going on. It’s just so much more fun.
We must embrace these dynamics. This might be the last generation that believes what they see on the internet.
Stopping fake news from getting published is a futile exercise. What Twitter needs is not to stop fake news, but to mold the product into one that embraces fake news. Because, whatever you do, such content is going to get created. You could stop one kind today, another will come up tomorrow. It’s a losing battle. Always.
The tech world must embrace fake news, not fight it.
“WhatsApp forward” is now beginning to substitute the term “fake news”. This is a great sign. Ours will be the last generation that says “I read that on the internet, must be true”. Tech changed so fast, we’re still adapting to what it has thrown at us. We’ll learn. We’ll learn to filter, we’ll learn what and how we believe what we hear.
Again, using WhatsApp’s example – the “Forwarded” label on forwarded message is genius. It doesn’t say whether it’s true or not. It just says “Look, this is forwarded, take it with a pinch of salt”. It leaves it to the people to learn what kind of forwards they get.
We need more such product optimizations on our social media. Not a bunch of people deciding on the truth. We need scalable solutions.
The combination of the above changes will evolve into a new platform that looks nothing like Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. It will be a platform that fundamentally changes the incentives of the participants. Designing incentives defines user behavior.
One such mechanism is to incentivize thoughtful content. A creator shouldn’t have to seek a million subscribers. Having a deeper relationship with a smaller audience might help creators’ base line happiness and help weed off sensational content. It’ll make the internet a better place.