Whoever has paying the slightest attention knows that the big social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube prioritize user engagement above anything else. So why don’t their CEOs admit it?
On Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai testified before Congress for a hearing titled “Nation of Disinformation: The Role of Social Media in Promoting Extremism and Disinformation.” At this point, it was far from their first rodeo. The three frames testified in the Senate at the end of October, and Dorsey and Zuckerberg were brings back after the elections. Both audiences were boisterous, inconsistent shows that included lots of eyebrows on specific tweets and little substance. Thursday’s hearing before the House Energy and Trade Committee promised more of the same.
And he delivered – but only in part. If you were looking for silly questions, boring partisan talking points, and infuriating discussions about “disinformation” and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, you wouldn’t have been disappointed. However! The five-and-a-half-hour hearing also contained flashes of promise, when members of Congress did something they very rarely did in these situations: deepen business incentives that lead to bad consequences, rather than just call out. businesses for their content moderation decisions. Rep after rep took turns describing the relationship between monetizing user attention to deliver personalized ads, on the one hand, and the proliferation of extreme and bogus material, on the other. Consider this statement from the case, from Robin Kelly, an Illinois Democrat:
“The business model for your platforms is quite simple: retain users. The more time people spend on social media, the more data is collected and targeted ads sold. To create that engagement, social media platforms amplify attention-grabbing content. It could be cat videos or vacation photos, but all too often it means inflammatory content, containing conspiracy theories or violence. Algorithms on the platforms can actively channel users from the mainstream to the edge, subjecting users to more extreme content, all to maintain user engagement. is a fundamental flaw in your business model that simple warning labels on messages, temporary suspensions of certain accounts, and even content moderation cannot remedy. And your company’s insatiable desire to maintain user engagement will continue to give that content a safe haven. improves your results. “
Focusing on the attention-focused business model appears to have been a coordinated strategy among the Democrats on the committee, but they weren’t alone. Bill Johnson, a Republican from Ohio, compared the addiction of social platforms to cigarettes. “You benefit from increasing users on your platforms by capitalizing on their time,” he said, speaking to Dorsey and Zuckerberg. “So yes or no: are you okay with making money by creating dependency on your platforms?”
Both leaders said no. As they have done over and over again, with Pichai, when they were simply asked if the algorithms on their platforms are optimized to show users hardware that will keep them engaged. Rather than defend the economic model of their company, they denied it.
Zuckerberg, in particular, has suggested that maximizing the time users spend on the platform is the furthest thing on the minds of its engineers. “It’s a common misconception that our teams even aim to try and increase the time people spend,” he said. The real goal of the company, he insisted, is to foster “meaningful social interactions”. Misinformation and inflammatory content actually defeats this goal. If users are spending time on the platform, it just proves that the experience is so meaningful to them. “Engagement,” he said, “is just a sign that if we deliver this value, it will be natural for people to use our services more.”