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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.

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

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?

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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Snapchat Adds 12 Million Users in Q4, Posts Lower Than Expected Revenue Result

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Snapchat Adds 12 Million Users in Q4, Posts Lower Than Expected Revenue Result

Snapchat added 12 million more active users in Q4 2022, and Snapchat+ subscriptions continue to rise, but company revenue missed market estimates, in another mixed result for the private social app.

First off, on users – as noted, Snap added 12 million more actives, taking it to 375 million DAU.

As you can see, North American user growth is still flat, while European users saw a slight uptick. But it’s the ‘Rest of the World’, specifically India, which is driving Snap growth.

Which is helping to boost the overall usage numbers, and expand opportunity. But on the revenue side, it’s not pushing things forward in a significant way.

Snap Q4 2022

As you can see in this chart, Snapchat’s revenue has increased, but a key problem here is that it’s still reliant on the US and Canada for the majority of that spend, with other markets trailing well behind on the revenue front.

Snap Q4 2022

In this chart, you can see that Snap’s Revenue Per User has actually declined year-on-year – so while it is growing, it’s not bringing in revenue at equivalent scale, and it’s even going backwards in some respects.

Which is why its stagnant growth in North America is a problem – though Snap has also seen take-up of its Snapchat+ subscription service increase.

“In Q4, our subscription service Snapchat+ reached over 2.0 million paying subscribers. Snapchat+ offers exclusive, experimental, and pre-release features, and in Q4 we launched new features such as Custom Story Expiration and Custom Notification Sounds, providing subscribers with over 12 exclusive features.”

That’s a handy additional revenue stream, but as with all social media subscription services (including Twitter Blue), take-up is generally limited, and at 2 million subscribers, that’s still only 0.5% of Snapchat’s active user base that’s been willing to pay extra for these add-on elements.

Snap has also faced challenges in rebuilding its ad business, in the wake of Apple’s iOS 14 update, which has impacted data collection, and Snap CEO Evan Spiegel says they still have some way to go on this yet:

“We continue to face significant headwinds as we look to accelerate revenue growth, and we are making progress driving improved return on investment for advertisers and innovating to deepen the engagement of our community.”

Snap has seen improvement in its commerce integrations, which includes digital items for Bitmoji avatars which Snap is eventually looking to translate into real-world item sales as well. Snap also says that it’s facilitated over than 161 million product trials by over 35 million Snapchatters for Walmart, leveraging its Catalog-Powered Shopping Lenses at-scale.

Snapchat AR shopping

Those point to bigger opportunities, but right now, amid the broader economic downturn, and restrictions on data collection and targeting, Snapchat is in a tough spot, and will be for some time yet.

Essentially, then, you’re banking on Snap’s future, and its advanced tools that could help it better align with expanded AR and VR use. And Snap is seemingly in a good position on this front – though again, the impacts of the last year, which also forced Snap into lay-offs, will also have some effect.

Really, then, the results here are relative to your perspective.

For advertisers, more Snap users means more potential reach – but most of Snap’s growth is coming from outside the US. More advanced AR activations could become a bigger deal in future, but it depends on how you’re looking to connect, and product fit.

Investors won’t be overly happy with the numbers, but there are positive signs on the horizon. It’s just that the horizon, in this respect, remains well in the distance at this stage.

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Climate disinfo surges in denial, conspiracy comeback

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Climate disinfo surges in denial, conspiracy comeback

Activists of Extinction Rebellion hold a ‘die-in’ for climate action in Boston in July 2022 – Copyright AFP/File Joseph Prezioso

Roland LLOYD PARRY

False information about climate change flourished online over the past year, researchers say, with denialist social media posts and conspiracy theories surging after US environmental reforms and Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover.

“What really surprised us this year was to see a resurgence in language that is reminiscent of the 1980s: phrases like ‘climate hoax’ and ‘climate scam’ that deny the phenomenon of climate change,” said Jennie King, head of civic action at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based digital research group.

Popular topics included the false claims that CO2 does not cause climate change or that global warming is not caused by human activity, said Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD), a coalition of campaigners, in a report.

“Let me expose what the climate scam is actually all about,” read one of the most-shared tweets, cited in another survey by US non-profit Advance Democracy, Inc (ADI).

“It is a wealth transfer from you — to the global elite.”

– Twitter disinfo surge –

An analysis of Twitter messages — carried out for AFP by two computational social scientists at City, University of London — counted 1.1 million tweets or retweets using strong climate-sceptic terms in 2022.

Watchdogs are urging social media platforms to tackle climate disinformation – Copyright AFP Robyn Beck

That was nearly twice the figure for 2021, said researchers Max Falkenberg and Andrea Baronchelli. They found climate denial posts peaked in December, the month after Tesla billionaire Musk took over the platform.

Use of the denialist hashtag #ClimateScam surged on Twitter from July, according to analyses by CAAD and the US-based campaign group Center For Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).

For weeks it was the top suggested search term on the site for users typing “climate”.

CAAD said the reason for that was “unclear”, though one major user of the term appeared to be an automated account, possibly indicating that a malignant bot was churning it out.

ADI noted that July saw US President Joe Biden secure support for a major climate spending bill — subject of numerous “climate scam” tweets — plus a heatwave in the United States and Europe.

Climate denial posts also peaked during the COP27 climate summit in November.

– Blue-tick deniers –

A quarter of all the strongly climate-sceptic tweets came from just 10 accounts, including Canadian right-wing populist party leader Maxime Bernier and Paul Joseph Watson, editor of conspiracy-theory website InfoWars, the City research showed.

CCDH pointed the finger at Musk, who reinstated numerous banned Twitter accounts and allowed users to pay for a blue tick — a mark previously reserved for accredited “verified” users in the public eye.

“Elon Musk’s decision to open up his platform for hate and disinformation has led to an explosion in climate disinformation on the platform,” said Callum Hood, CCDH’s head of research.

Musk himself tweeted in August 2022: “I do think global warming is a major risk.”

Musk has also created a $100 million dollar prize for technology innovations shown to be effective in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But prolific climate change contrarians -– such as blogger Tony Heller and former coal executive Steve Milloy — have hailed him in their tweets.

– Conspiracy theories –

An analysis by Advance Democracy seen by AFP found the number of Twitter posts “using climate change denialism terms” more than tripled from 2021 to 2022, reaching over 900,000.

On TikTok, views of videos using hashtags associated with climate change denialism increased by 4.9 million, it said.

On YouTube, climate change denial videos got hundreds of thousands of views, with searches for them bringing up adverts for climate-denial products.

YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez told AFP that in response to the claim, certain climate-denial ads had been taken down.

TikTok and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.

On Facebook, meanwhile, ADI found the number of such posts decreased compared to 2021, in line with overall climate change claims.

– Culture wars –

The CAAD report said climate content regularly features alongside other misleading claims on “electoral fraud, vaccinations, the COVID-19 pandemic, migration, and child trafficking rings run by so-called ‘elites’.”

Jennie King of ISD said: “We are definitely seeing a rise of out-and-out conspiracism. Climate is the latest vector in the culture wars.”

Given the reports by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showing that human carbon emissions are heating the planet, raising the risk of floods, droughts and heatwaves, CCDH’s Hood emphasised the urgency of restricting the reach of misinformation.

“We would encourage platforms to think about the real harm that is caused by climate change,” Hood said, “so people who repeatedly spread demonstrably false information about climate are not granted the sort of reach that we see them getting.”

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Snap making changes to direct response advertising business

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Snap making changes to direct response advertising business

The company posted a net loss of $288.5 million, or 18 cents a share, including $34 million in charges from its workforce restructuring. That compared to a profit of $23 million, or one cent, a year earlier.

Snap ended the fourth quarter with 375 million daily users, a 17% increase. In the first three months of the year, the company estimates 382 million to 384 million people will use its platform daily.

Snap has become a bellwether for other digital advertising companies. Last year, it was the first to raise concerns about the slowdown in marketer spending online and to fire a significant number of employees—20% of its workforce—to cut costs in the face of falling revenue.

The company has spent the last two quarters refocusing the organization, cutting projects that don’t contribute to user and revenue growth.

In the first quarter, Snap expects the environment to “remain challenging as we expect the headwinds we have faced over the past year to persist.”

Investors will get additional information about the state of the digital ad market when Meta and Alphabet report earnings later this week.

—Bloomberg News

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