16th April 2024

A Virtual World of Live Pictures

Technology and Computer

Conspiracy, monetisation and weirdness: this is why social media has become ungovernable | Nesrine Malik

On TikTok, there is a short clip of what an AI voiceover claims is a supposed “ring glitch” in the video in which Princess of Wales reveals her cancer diagnosis. It has 1.3 million views. Others, in which users “break down” aspects of the video and analyse the saga with spurious evidence, also rack up millions of views and shares. I have then seen them surface on X, formerly known as Twitter, and even shared on WhatsApp by friends and family, who see in these videos, presented as factual and delivered in reporter-style, nothing that indicates that this is wild internet bunkum.

Something has changed about the way social media content is presented to us. It is both a huge and subtle shift. Until recently, types of content were segregated by platform. Instagram was for pictures and short reels, TikTok for longer videos, X for short written posts. Now Instagram reels post TikTok videos, which post Instagram reels, and all are posted on X. Often it feels like a closed loop, with the algorithm taking you further and further away from discretion and choice in who you follow. All social media apps now have the equivalent of a “For you” page, a feed of content from people you don’t follow, and which, if you don’t consciously adjust your settings, the homepage defaults to. The result is that increasingly, you have less control over what you see.

And the less control you have, the more these platforms become a jostling market of attention-seeking and selling. Sometimes the product is clear, resembling an old-fashioned advertisement, although often you have to look carefully to realise that. Content creators link items they love on “shop fronts” and it looks as if they’re just helpfully recommending things you might be interested in paying for, whereas in fact they earn a commission when you buy. Other times, the simple act of you watching, sharing and engaging is enough to generate revenue for those users who have posted it. The result is a system that incentivises the creation of content that triggers high engagement, and there’s little that achieves that better than conspiracy theorising.

Conspiracy theories online are not new, but they seem to have migrated, in substance and source, from the sensationalist to sober, from something you would stumble upon sometimes, to something that appears as part of your everyday feed. I’m not sure exactly when it started happening, but in my user experience, it burst its banks with the new X regime under Elon Musk. The changing of verification rules means that people who pay for blue tick badges (as opposed to being awarded them based on profile and credibility) get preferential treatment in how their posts are viewed by non-followers, and have come to understand that their style must sound authoritative.

And so the tone of conspiracy has become gentrified. People are now just “asking questions”, posting grainy videos and asking, “What do you notice?”, or threading, like those sober TikTok video creators, a series of observations and expressing concern that something is just not right. If you thought that the Baltimore bridge collapse was an accident, there are now several posts, by verified users, implying there is simply no way that is true.

There is a tendency to treat all online behaviour – even that which is legitimately questioning and rightfully irreverent – as the manifestation of real-life “mob” activity, of collective meanness and moral failure. But the internet simply isn’t that easy to get your head around. There is no simple formula, but monetisation now drives more content than you realise from a cursory scroll.

Princess of Wales reveals she has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy – video

Social media in the past was just that, a social place, one that mainly intersected with personal brand-building and professional ambitions only in so far as it helped in raising a user’s public profile. It is now a job, a place where users can get paid and become full-time “content creators”. Virality of videos or tweets enhances users’ ability to unlock monetisation and grow follower counts, which then attract brands and partnerships, and the more that model works, the more it brings in revenue for social media platforms, which in turn charge for monetisation as a service.

Look at claims that a Kremlin-linked network was involved in stirring conspiracy theories about Kate Middleton; according to a report in the New York Times, the motives were probably not only political, but commercial, whereby Russian networks capitalised on the interest in the Middleton story to boost their own traffic.

Legacy media look down on all of this, of course, avoiding uncomfortable questions. Cynically manipulating news stories, spinning them, and presenting the results as fact for clicks and shares is in many ways an evolution and refinement of what has been going on for decades on the pages of the tabloids and rightwing media – particularly when it comes to celebrities and members of the royal family.

The Princess of Wales is “too good for mean spirited Little Britain”, the Telegraph printed in mid-March. Ten days later, the paper headlined a story about Sean Combs’ indictment with “Prince Harry named in Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs sexual assault lawsuit”, even though he was only referenced in passing. (The headline appears to have been later changed to “Prince Harry dragged into …”) When parts of the press admonish social media users for speculating about the royals, the insinuation seems to be: that’s our job.

This is just one small example of how the old system of mediation between the palace and the media, steering the public towards whom to love and whom to hate, is now gone for ever. Some of that is because of how the profile of the royals has changed since the death of Queen Elizabeth. The family has been relegated to a cruder celebrity, with the added twist that we feel we are owed more by them than other famous people we do not pay for. We are at a new juncture in social media activity that the Middleton case has merely brought to the surface.

It’s not just a nasty place that we can conveniently assume hosts the worst of human behaviour, triggered into derangement by anonymity and a goading algorithm. There are new commercial players that are simulating, and then trying to replace, legacy media by attacking them as a purveyor of narratives that keep you in the dark. They are disparate and atomised and ungovernable, and their posts and videos mislead users with head-spinning virality that a static front-page could never achieve. And for established media, reckoning with how that is happening in all its complexity is far harder and far more incriminating than reducing it all to the moral shortcomings of the public.

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