Social media has been at the center of a number of firestorms around everything from being intentionally addicting, to making people depressed, to gleefully spreading misinformation and destabilizing democracies around the world. While almost everyone can agree that something must be done, there’s not a lot of agreement on what exactly it should be. In this article, I will argue that the core of all these issues is the advertising business model itself, and that banning ads on social media platforms entirely would go a long way to fixing these problems, or at least making it possible to fix these problems. The core of the problem is that maximizing advertising revenue requires maximizing time-in-app and engagement above all else.
If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.
Engagement at all costs
Social media networks are paid by advertisers, so the bottom line of Facebook and Twitter depends on being able to show as many ads as possible to as many users as possible. If you use Facebook 50% less, but as a result are happier and can spend your time better, Facebook loses money. If you’re able to connect with your friends quicker and more efficiently, and are less distracted, Facebook loses money. If you find the content shared on Facebook to be less provocative, and thus spend less time in Facebook, Facebook loses money. In order for ad-driven social media to maximize value to their shareholders, as corporations are required by law to do, they must drive time-in-app as their core metric. As long as social media follows an ad-driven business model, it has no choice except to be harmful to users and harmful to society.
Great for advertisers, bad for everyone else
It’s not hard to understand why social media that’s designed to be as addicting, distracting, and provocative as possible is bad for society. Studies have found a strong link between increased phone use and depression in teens. This is likely as a result of teens feeling left out of their friends social lives, and feeling that their lives are not as worse than those of their friends as seen on social media. Other studies have shown that limiting social media use decreases loneliness and depression. Of course, users being glued to their screens is amazing for the bottom line of Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube as it allows them to sell more and more ads.
Furthermore, the scale of usage of social media is staggering. A 2018 study found that a majority of US adults now use Facebook multiple times per day, and that 94% of 18-24 year olds use Youtube and other social media. Social media usage is only expected to continue to grow in the future.
Political misinformation: move fast and break democracy
Social media’s relentless push to increase user engagement to sell more ads also means finding the content that gets the most engagement and spreading it as widely and quickly as possible. Not surprisingly, the content that gets the most engagement is content that causes fear or outrage, which is perfect to spread political misinformation. Social networks like Facebook claim they’re not a publisher and thus do none of the editorial work that traditional news organizations do to ensure the content on the platform is based on fact. At the same time this is happening, more and more people are using social media as their main news source. A 2016 study found that a majority of people in the US now get their news from social media.
Social media has been criticized for its role in spreading misinformation in the 2016 US election, but it has been used extensively outside of the US as well, sometimes with lethal results. For instance, Facebook was used effectively to spread anti-Rohingya propaganda, resulting in murder, rape, and massive human displacement as part of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
Beyond outright misinformation, social media also polarizes society into extreme groups that make discussion and compromise in a democracy harder. Facebook has come under criticism for creating echo chambers where political views are repeatedly reinforced and made more extreme. Youtube has been shown to keep providing users with more and more extreme videos to keep them engaged, resulting in radicalization.
As long as social media platforms are funded by advertising they won’t be able to break this cycle. Selling more ads means showing users the most engaging content to keep them glued to their screens so they see more ads. Political misinformation and outrage keep users on Facebook and Youtube, so it’s not in these platforms financial interest to do anything about it even though it’s harmful to users and harmful to society.
Political ads: misinformation turbocharged for a small fee
Social media platforms also make it easy to just directly pay for political ads to spread misinformation and polarization for a small fee. These ads can be highly targeted, and thus it’s easy to send vastly different, even conflicting, messages to different groups. What’s more, Facebook recently announced that their official policy is that politicians are allowed to flagrantly lie in political ads. This is just the most egregious example of political advertising policy gone wrong, but this is a logical extension of funding social media with advertising. After all, if you’re going to allow political ads to fund social media, then where should they draw the line on what’s allowed in advertising? Facebook has decided there should be no line whatsoever; incriminatingly, this stance also maximizes Facebook’s profits by taking as much money from as many PACs and political organizations as possible.
The argument for allowing political ads on social media is that Facebook and other platforms would otherwise need to decide what’s a political ad and what’s not, what’s considered misinformation and what’s not. So long as Facebook is funded by advertising, why not just open the floodgates and allow everything through? And anyway, Facebook needs to maximize its ad profits, so it’s in their interest to allow every ad possible on the platform.
If ads were banned on social media, then this entire class of problem goes away. There’s no more issue with misinformation in political ads on social media because there are no more ads on social media.
Ban the ads!
All of the problems outlined above can either be solved outright or made much easier to solve if the advertising business model is made illegal for social media. There’s no way that social media platforms can take this step on their own - their ad-based profits are too intoxicating for them to stop voluntarily.
This would likely cut social media companies’ profits in the short term, but they will find other ways of making money. One could imagine going back to the old Whatsapp model of charging users $1 per year, or some other model. Youtube already has a paid subscription service users can purchase. Social media companies have smart people working there, and a massive userbase. They’ll figure it out. In the end, banning ads in social media will free it from the temptation of easy money as attention brokers and allow these companies to truly live up to their rhetoric and make the world a better place for all, rather than just for advertisers.