Artificial Scarcity: A Solution to Fake News and Misinformation in the Age of Social Media
This is a repost from a LinkedIn article posted on January 18th, 2021
Written by Adjunct Professor Dr. Ed Khashadourian Committee Member at Audit Committee, City of Glendale
Most people would probably agree that social media plays an undeniable role in driving the US’s social and political narrative today. Activists and politicians on both sides of the isle, as well as the masses who follow them, have long sounded the alarm on the potentially destructive effects of this influence. You know things are bad when even social media celebrities express their frustration about social media’s role in spreading disinformation, hate, and misinformation. A few months ago, Kardashians and a few others actually stopped posting on Facebook and Instagram for one day (smiley face). Some politicians are now even talking about creating a congressional oversight committee to monitor social media!
I hope social media bosses take notice. Still, if not, there might be an economic solution to this problem that is less contentious and does not involve oversight committees or fact-checkers to decide what is ok or expedient and what is not, to appear on social media pages. Rooted in the Rational Choice Theory, my solution is based on creating artificial scarcity. I am calling it my solution because I don’t know if anyone else has recommended something like this for social media platforms in the past. If it turns out that others have suggested it before, I’ll humbly consider myself a supporter of the said idea.
The solution is very simple, and here’s how it works. Social media platforms such as Facebook should start charging people when they share third-party (as opposed to own) content on their pages. Perhaps, they can offer one or two free shared content per day and then start charging after that. Are you outraged yet? Don’t be. If you think about it, it actually makes sense. Some dating sites are utilizing a similar strategy to continue to stay in business.
The point I’m trying to make is that some users simply share too many articles and half-baked one-liners from random sources every day. Having too many stories on your wall is like driving on a busy street; you just pay attention to the cars in front of you, trying to figure out when and how you can get out of the traffic. In the context of social media, this means that most of us just read the headlines and skip to the next story or article headline.
Those who are in the business of creating and disseminating lies or misinformation are fully aware of the fact that most people don’t read through their content, but at the same time, understand full well that their bread and butter is in creating titles and headlines that are off the charts on the craziness scale. The crazier the title, the more attention garbing they become. And for the people who are always on the lookout to share things on their social media walls, these titles are more attractive because they generate a lot of conversation and get likes.
This is how false or incorrect information finds an opportunity to spread around. Do not let people share more than one or two third-party content per day/week, or if they still insist on doing it, require them to pay for it- even charge them on an ascending scale! This idea also has its roots in behavioral economics. When facing the decision of whether or not to share something, the user will have to think and choose which material is worth posting or sharing. The rational calculation of our proverbial social media user will help us address this big problem in an effective way!
Over time, the Facebook street will become less crowded. People will occasionally even read the shared articles, knowing that they must be worth their while because the person who posted it actually engaged in a conscious decision process to share the material. At the same time, since producers of misinformation will no longer be able to benefit as much from their catchy headlines, they will now have to work on producing actual content to have a standing chance in the sharing competition. This will lower the supply of such material on Facebook and lead to a significant lowering of the craziness scale on the shared content on social media sites.
The strategy outlined above will not stamp out the flow of misinformation and hate on social media but will lessen its severity. I suspect that there will be people out there who will be paid to propagate lies, but the frequency of their posts and shares will quickly raise red flags for social media companies. All in all, I think by adopting a strategy similar to what I have outlined above, the problem will become far less severe over time.
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