Online content that is misleading is a big business. Digital advertising is worth EUR625bn and the business model is straightforward: more clicks or views means more money for advertisers. It is easy to attract our attention with shocking, incendiary content, whether or not it is true. This means that advertisers may end up funding false news and hate speeches.
It’s not an accident. Social media platforms are aware that they make money from spreading disinformation. Advertisers, however, turn a blind eye.
Disinformation is a deliberate attempt to manipulate or deceive the public by using coordinated campaigns and misleading or manipulative media. disinformation is spread on social media by bots, deepfakes, fake news, and conspiracy theories.
Most disinformation research to date has been focused on the abuse of the system by national interest and authoritarian leadership. My research reveals that misinformation is a predictable and likely outcome from this market system, rather than an unexpected one.
Business models that reward engagement
Social media platforms are not intended to provide information but for entertainment. The purpose of these platforms was to find the best cat videos and recommend them to those who would like to share them. Marketing researchers have found, however, that content that evokes strong emotions, such as awe, or negative emotions, like anger and fear, is likely to go viral. Platforms have taken this into account and built it into their business models.
Social media has the following business model. Platforms offer us free “infotainment”, which is information and entertainment, and they do all that they can to keep us interested. Platforms harvest our data while we are consuming the content. This information is then transformed into predictive analytics, which can be used to target ads. These analytics are paid for by advertisers to fuel their targeted advertising campaigns.
Most platforms have a financial incentive to maximize online engagement. This means that any content that gets clicks, likes, and comments, whether it is factual or false, is highly valued. Influencers can make a lot of money by sharing controversial, incendiary content. This often leads others to copy their style. It is not surprising that many content creators create emotional, aggressive, and simplistic content.
also circulates conspiracy theories by stoking social anxiety and fostering tribalism.
Digital marketing and disinformation
Digital marketing is the commercial practice that firms use to create value on the internet. Search optimisation, content, influencers, and pay-per-click ads are all part of digital marketing. Companies hire digital marketing firms and adtech to operate the software which makes ads follow us on the internet.
Ad tech companies do not have accountability or oversight. When a brand hires an ad-tech firm to place its ads, it also outsources their responsibility. Unknowingly, a brand could end up funding disinformation regarding major global events such as the Russia/Ukraine War or the Israel/Palestine War. Brands remain silent even after being provided with proof.
Influencers are a key player in the digital marketplace. They will do anything to get the advertising money, including promoting material that undermines democratic institutions. It doesn’t matter to the platform if an influencer is demonetised or barred for publishing hate speech, since they get to keep all the advertising revenue.
Democratic Governance of Digital Platforms
most brands don’t want to be linked with hate speech or bot farms. But they . In a market that is so technically complex, it’s easy to ignore the problem. But marketers still have a duty. By remaining silent, brands become complicit.
Activists and policymakers are pushing for to reform digital platforms in order to combat disinformation. The majority of efforts are focused on content moderation, fact-checking and digital advertising reform.
The platforms and ad tech firms need to work together to reform a disinformation-driven market, even though they appear to be unwilling to or unable to lead the way.
Brand managers have the power to use their budgets in order to make platforms accountable. This is especially true if they act collectively, as was demonstrated by the recent X ad boycott after Elon Musk made antisemitic comments. If all else fails, policymakers will have to step in and ensure that these tech giants’ profits do not come at our democratic cost.