Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/The Commercialisation of Social Media and its Impact on Truth

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The growing use of social media platforms has changed the consumption of information. Users increasingly follow influencers and brands, which have vested commercial interest in users interactions. This impedes the access to reliable truth, as shared information can function to support an economic agenda, which blurs the lines between absolute truth and biased information. This chapter will explore how commercial interests and human behaviour interact to distort truth on social media platforms.

Social media as a contemporary commercial propaganda[edit]

Image showing the difference between disinformation and misinformation.

It is argued that commercial propaganda, usually presented in the form of journalism, is one of the four main propaganda streams, and plays a significant role in publicity, advertising and public relations.[1] Historically, commercial entities have used the media to manipulate the truth. Before social media, the most common propaganda instrument was newspapers, in which 70% of revenue came from selling advertisements, rather than conveying objective information.[1] In the 2008 subprime crisis, the distribution of the "All is Well" message from Wall Street via social media continually misled readers to take more risks. This was disinformation intended to protect profits but consequently brought about adverse effects for believers.[2] Thus, the use of media forms by commercial entities to protect and increase their profits can be seen through history and is not isolated to social media.

In fact, the influence of the media in general on the public access to reliable truth is well researched; truths can be influenced by journalism, as the commercial potential of an article forms the primary foundation of selecting information to be publicised.[3] Journalistic perspective also acts as a barrier to truth as there are often discrepancies in the information given to the public in contrast to information in its original, unedited form. Currently, social media is our dominant information source, so it is logical to infer that if traditional media impacts our access to reliable truth, it can also be impacted in the subcategory of social media.

Social media as an economically viable strategy[edit]

The use of influencers and interactions by users creates a sense of credibility, regardless of whether there is any truth in the information shared. This de-commercialised marketing strategy allows commercial messages to be seen as trustworthy, as “trust in social media is synonymous with credibility and reliability".[4] This suggests that it may be harder for a user to distinguish what information has been shared by a brand through influencers, or what has been shared by influencers themselves as actual truth. At present, there is a notable increase in the number of corporations investing in social media marketing strategies, due to the positive impact on customer perception of brands, as well as the number of people using social media platforms to make purchase decisions.[5] Some social media campaigns have shown an 83% net return on investment, and 40% increases in their revenue growth rate. This economic perspective shows that commercialisation in social media is evident and plays an integral role in business.[6] Because of this, there is a concern that this increased interest from businesses in social media has contributed to the growing problem of ‘misinformation’; a term that was appointed word of the year 2018.[7]

Social media and human behaviour[edit]

The consumption of products on social media platforms is influenced by factors other than absolute truth. Some people are more likely to be persuaded by the portrayal of a product in images, rather than the quality of the product itself.[8] If the images are seen as perceived truth, and product quality as a form of absolute truth, this shows that absolute truth is not what always drives a consumer’s decision-making process.This is further emphasised by the finding that factual advertising can, in fact, decrease purchase potential due to scepticism when faced with empirical information.[9] Here, the truth is not only less persuasive than other information sources but also acts as a hindrance to the aims of the information sharer. This provides an explanation as to why there is motivation for corporations to share information which diverges from the truth, as it does not always lead to the outcome that the information sharers desire.

Logo of popular social media platform 'Instagram' inside of a scroll.

Inter-user communication influences the perception of brands to a greater extent than information shared by the corporations behind said brands.[10] This user interaction can often cause misinformation to spread across a platforms. False news spreads both faster and further than correct information due to the high emotional response exhibited in comparison to verified information, this is because it ties to engaging topics that are relevant to current events.[11] Commercial entities have taken advantage of this by making advertisements trend specific, as well as utilising influencer marketing to make their specific message relevant to users.

In addition to this, the constant stream of information on social media increases the frequency that people interact with information increases its circulation and efficacy. Most young people have an active presence on multiple social media sites and check their phone over 70 times a day.[12] This presence increases the likelihood of exposure to the same information. The application of algorithms on social media platforms, as well as cross-platform marketing strategies also increase exposure, thus increasing trust in the information provided. This persistence of information means users as less likely to check facts, meaning that the user will most likely accept the information given. This leads to the reliance on confirmation bias, in which the user uses logic to deduce whether the information given fits into what they already believe to be true. This bias increases the spread of misinformation, as users then choose not to seek out whether something is true or not.[13]

However, this approach to understanding how commercialisation adversely impacts the truth of content on social media platforms acts on the assumption that without these vested interests, social media would be a space free of misinformation. This assumption is problematic, as opinions and information, both real and false, are spread due to the platforms communicative nature. There must be an understanding from users that they are potentially being manipulated through the content that they receive via social media and that they are responding to opinion rather than fact[12]. Therefore, the spread of misinformation does not exclusively result from the spreading of biased opinions by commercial entities, but also the users' behaviour themselves.

Conclusion[edit]

In order to understand how commercial interests are successful in impacting the truth of information on social media platforms, it is important to view it through the lens of history, economics and human behaviour. The spread of biased information via social media functions to support an economic agenda, which brings returns for companies who engage in this practice. Therefore, it is understandable why commercial entities utilise human behaviour patterns to manipulate users for commercial gain. History shows us that the circulation of biased information which impacts truth is not new, which suggests that the lines between impartial information and biased advertising will continue to be blurred. Thus, to combat the adverse impact of commercialisation on truth, it may be that the responsibility lies with the user to be aware that social media is commercialised and to fact-check information for confirmation of truth.

References:[edit]

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