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Barack Obama Outlines Key Challenges with Social Media Amplification, and How to Address ‘Design Flaws’ to Save Democracy

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Barack Obama Outlines Key Challenges with Social Media Amplification, and How to Address 'Design Flaws' to Save Democracy


Former US President Barack Obama has outlined a range of rising concerns with the modern media landscape, and social media specifically, along with potential solutions that could help to address social platform ‘design flaws’ that are facilitating the spread of toxic content and misinformation online.

In a broad-ranging speech on the topic of “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm”, the former President has highlighted a raft of concerns with the rise of social media platforms, and the impact that they’ve had on discourse more broadly.

As per Obama:

“I’m convinced that right now, one of the biggest impediments to [improving society], indeed one of the biggest reasons for democracy’s weakening, is the profound change that’s taken place in how we communicate and consume information.”

Part of this, Obama says, is the changing incentive structure for modern online platforms. Twenty years ago, Obama notes that the key pillars of web search were ‘comprehensiveness, relevance and speed’. But with the rise of social media, and the need to learn more about people’s behavior, in order to sell more ads, more companies are now opting for ‘personalization, engagement and speed’.

“And it turns out that inflammatory, polarizing content attracts and engages.”

Though it’s not all negative – Obama also notes the many positives that have been provided by increased connectivity, including the capacity to find like-minded people, and link up with relevant services and support at much faster rates.

Obama notes that he might not have been elected if it wasn’t for MySpace, MeetUp and Facebook, which enabled an army of young volunteers to help mobile and spread his key messages, underlining the value that he, and many others, have gleaned from increased connectivity.

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Yet, at the same time, Obama says that the new information ecosystem is ‘turbo-charging some of humanity’s worst impulses’.

“Some of the most outrageous content on the web originates from traditional media. What social media platforms have done, though, thanks to their increasing market dominance and their emphasis on speed, is accelerate the decline of newspapers and other traditional news sources […] As more and more ad revenue flows to the platforms that disseminate the news, rather than that money going to the newsrooms that report it, publishers, reporters, editors, they all feel the pressure to maximize engagement in order to compete.”

Essentially, Obama’s view is not that social media platforms have led to more societal division and angst directly, but that they have helped to amplify such, with users in all parts of the world now exposed to more information, and more reports from around the world, with the worst examples being inadvertently (or not) amplified by social platform algorithms that have been designed to maximize user engagement, whatever that ‘engagement’ may be.

In the competition between truth and falsehood, the very design of these platforms seems to be tilting us in the wrong direction. And we’re now seeing the results.”

In order to address this, Obama says that online platforms should be required to consider their policy decisions through a set of certain agreed principles, and should be transparent about such in approaches.

Those key principles, according to Obama, should be:

  • Whether it strengthens or weakens the prospects for a healthy, inclusive democracy
  • Whether it encourages robust debate, and respect for our differences
  • Whether it reinforces rule of law and self-governance
  • Whether it helps us make collective decisions based on the best available information
  • Whether it recognizes the rights, freedoms and dignity of all citizens
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Those make sense, but even then, enforcing such is complex – what I consider encouraging ‘robust debate’ might be completely different to someone else’s perspective.

But the view is that by adhering to these principles, and being open about such, online platforms can work together to formulate more effective, inclusive approaches to content moderation, which can work to temper negative speech, rather than encourage it.

But Obama also notes that no one platform can establish such a structure, nor should they be asked to.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence that any single individual or organization, private or public, should be in charge of determining who gets to hear what.”

As such, Obama also proposes significant policy reform, including a revision of Section 230, which was effectively written to absolve telecommunications companies of responsibility for information communicated via their services. Social platforms are now governed under the same laws, but the more public nature of social apps changes the dynamic, and Obama suggests that the laws should be reviewed to ensure that they cater to the needs to the modern information economy.

A broader, over-arching policy approach, incorporating the above principles, would also absolve any one platform of the responsibility for policing speech independently.

Which, Obama says, is the way forward, and a change in approach that we must adopt.

“In the early days of the internet and social media, there was a certain joy at finding new ways to connect and organize and stay informed, there was so much promise. I know, I was there. And right now, just like politics itself, just like our public lives, social media has a grimness to it. We’re so fatalistic about the steady stream of bile and vitriol that’s on there. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, if we’re gonna’ succeed, it can’t be that way.”

There are some valuable notes in Obama’s observations, and some good pointers as to where things have gone wrong, and how we can work to get the flow of information back on track. Part of the problem, however, is that many of these approaches run counter to the financial incentives of the platforms themselves, which derive the most benefit by keeping users engaged for as long as possible. More divisive content, as Obama notes, drives more engagement – so how do you convince the platforms to take a firmer stand on such?

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Regulation may be the only way forward, and through their public statements, the platforms themselves now seem largely in favor of such. The next step is to get regulators to push things forward, and enforce new operating standards to make a significant shift in the right direction.

Whether that’s in line with Obama’s principles, or others formulated through further investigation and debate, it’s important that the conversation begins now, before we move into the next plain of digital existence.



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Elon Musk Outlines New, Alternate Color Checkmarks to Clarify Verification

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Elon Musk Outlines New, Alternate Color Checkmarks to Clarify Verification

Elon Musk has revealed more details of the coming revamp of Twitter’s $8 verification program, which was initially launched three weeks back, but then pulled from live production due to a raft of impersonations which caused significant confusion in the app.

Those impersonations also led to stock price dips, corporate apologies, misreporting – the $8 verification plan, while only available to some users, for a short amount of time, immediately caused significant issues for Twitter and it’s as partners.

So Elon and Co. took it back, in order to revise and re-shape the program in a more brand-safe, user-friendly way.

And now, Musk has revealed more details as to exactly how the updated $8 verification plan will work.

First, to limit the potential of misrepresentation of corporate and government accounts, Musk says that those profiles will now get a different colored checkmark, which will ensure that people can’t just buy a blue tick and then pretend to be Coca-Cola for example.

As per Musk:

“Gold check for companies, gray check for government, blue for individuals (celebrity or not)”

App researcher Alessandro Paluzzi posted these examples of how these new ticks might look in the app.

It’s a sensible move, which will avoid similar incidents like this tweet from an $8 verified account, which tanked Eli Lilly’s stock price.

Eli Lilly tweet

The updated gold checkmark will ideally limit the potential for future users to do the same, because they won’t be able to buy the official gold tick – though there will be a period of adjustment and education on such for users.

The alternate checkmarks will also likely kill off Twitter’s new gray ‘Official’ tick, which looks pretty ridiculous.

Twitter Official checkmark

Of course, the new variations of checkmarks do also add the potential problem of another elusive marker that people will be trying to get. But we’ll cross that extra complication when we come to it.

Another concern with this approach is that it’ll require manual checking, as Twitter can’t know for sure that it’s a brand or government account without some kind of confirmation.
Initially, Twitter has thus far opted to avoid any kind of manual confirmation in this new process, due to the additional labor requirement, but now, Musk says that this will be integrated into the updated process:

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“All verified accounts will be manually authenticated before check activates. Painful, but necessary.”

How Musk and Co. do that with any level of efficiency, with 65% less staff, I don’t know, but it seems like they’re going to at least try to find a way to check each $8 subscriber before approving their blue tick.

Musk also noted last week that any change in user name will result in a blue tick being deactivated till Twitter approves the new name.

So, like, a lot of manual monitoring, with a lot less staff.

Also, for the traditional blue checkmarks, there’ll be no differentiation between those who’ve been given the marker, and those who’ve paid for it:

“All verified individual humans will have same blue check, as boundary of what constitutes ‘notable’ is otherwise too subjective.”

Which is true – there are a lot of blue checkmarks on random accounts, and it has been a confused system. But at the same time, there are also a lot of high-profile individuals who could be at risk of impersonation under this system – which, incidentally, is why the blue ticks were introduced in the first place (in 2009, an MLB star sued Twitter for allowing a scammer to use his likeness to dupe people in the app).

There’s also this:

“Individuals can have secondary tiny logo showing they belong to an org if verified as such by that org.”

So an additional qualifier for spokespeople, CEOs and journalists, as another measure to avoid impersonation.

The updated elements will certainly lessen the scope for scam activity, but still, they do also introduce a level of risk, and at the same time, the scheme itself is unlikely to work out as Musk hopes.

The revamp of Twitter’s verification program is Elon’s first grand plan to save the app (aside from cutting costs), by giving users access to one of the most in-demand in-app features – the elusive blue checkmark.

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Charging for verification could theoretically kill two birds with one stone, in verifying real humans (while making it cost-prohibitive to crate bot accounts) while also providing a direct revenue stream, thereby reducing the company’s reliance in ads. People want the blue tick, now they can get it, while Musk has also sought to amplify the cultural divide element, by presenting this as a way to even the field, and enable all users to get what only celebrities have thus far been able to access.

Initially, Musk was set to charge $20 per month for this service, but after an argument with the author of ‘Misery’, he reduced this to $8 per month.

In Musk’s view, this is a good deal, because who doesn’t have an extra $8 to spend?

He’s since sought to establish this as the norm, repeatedly telling his critics to ‘now pay $8’, as if it’s a forgone conclusion that people will indeed pay.

But they won’t, and history shows that there’s almost no chance that Musk’s paid verification scheme will actually work as intended.

Take, for example, Twitter Blue, which provides Twitter users with a raft of additional features, which was initially available for $3 per month.

Twitter Blue never saw much take-up, peaking at 100k subscribers, with even the addition of tweet editing, the most requested feature in social media history, failing to shift the needle in any significant way.

Given this, it’s difficult to see Musk’s new, $8 verification getting the number of sign ups he’d need to achieve his aims for the option.

For context:

  • If Elon wants to get subscriptions to contribute 50% of Twitter’s revenue, as he’s previously stated, he’ll need 24.6 million users to sign on to pay $8 per month for a blue tick
  • If he wants to use this as a means to verify all the humans, so that only bot accounts are the ones that don’t have a blue tick, you’d think he’d be looking at upwards of 75% of Twitter’s user base, or around 178 million users paying each month
  • Twitter’s likely to actually lose around $6 per US user, per month, for each person that signs up to the new $8 Twitter Blue scheme, due to Musk’s plan to show Blue subscribers ‘half the ads’. Factoring in App Store fees from the monthly $8 payment, it could actually be a difficult balance from a revenue standpoint, with Twitter potentially even losing money on the deal, if it does end up cutting ad exposure
  • The majority of Twitter users are outside the US, where $8 per month could be a lot more cost-prohibitive. This is especially true in India, where most of Twitter’s growth has come from over the past three years. India now has 18.8m users making it Twitter’s third biggest audience market, and while Musk has also flagged variable pricing by region, even $1 per month could be too high for developing markets
     
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Essentially, there’s no precedent to suggest that enough users will sign up to Elon’s $8 per month checkmark plan to make it worthwhile for the company to run, as either a revenue or verification pathway. Just 0.41% of Snapchat users pay for Snapchat+, a fraction of LinkedIn users pony up for Premium, while Meta concluded long ago that charging users was no where near as lucrative as serving a bigger audience more ads.

These new measures do counter some of the issues that the initial version of Musk’s $8 verification program introduced, but then again, they could also avoid them entirely by revising the current blue check system, as opposed to simply letting people pay for the marker.

But regardless, Musk is determined to push ahead, and find out for himself either way

Musk says the updated $8 verification plan will launch on Friday next week (12/2).



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