Facebook isn’t the same social network it used to be. A decade ago, status updates had to include the word ‘is.’ Catching up with friends meant writing on their Facebook digital walls.
Today’s social media couldn’t be more different. Users are sharing moments of their lives in vertical videos and photos that vanish in 24 hours through a feature called ‘Stories.’ We’ve become aware of the network’s dark side, with data privacy violations and the spread of misinformation and hate speech. Messaging apps are all the rage. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he thinks people will share more information on Stories — a feature it copied from its rival Snapchat — than on news feeds.
‘The concept [of social media] is part of the fabric of human life at this point,’ said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst for eMarketer who’s researched social media for nearly 15 years. ‘But how we share and what we share will definitely morph and change.’
The shift toward ephemeral content and messaging could fundamentally alter how we use Facebook and other social media, while also making it harder to combat misinformation, election interference and hate speech, some experts say. After all, it’s hard for companies to crack down when they can’t see what’s being shared in encrypted messages, or when photos and videos disappear after 24 hours. And while Facebook and others are investing in AI to spot and remove messages that violate their online rules, they still face a tough road ahead.
‘The companies are getting smarter at using artificial intelligence to identify egregious hate speech or extreme content, but the technology is far from perfect, meaning users getting frustrated when there are false positives,’ said Claire Wardle, the executive director of First Draft, a nonprofit aimed at tackling misinformation. ‘All in all, these shifts present a number of challenges for a number of different technology companies.’
The rise of Stories and messaging
Facebook-owned Instagram introduced Stories two years ago before Facebook added the Snapchat-like feature to WhatsApp, Messenger and its main social network.
Facebook now expects ephemeral content and messaging to play much bigger roles in its future, Zuckerberg said in October during the company’s third-quarter earnings call.
Instagram Stories hit 400 million daily active users in June, up 60 percent from the same month last year. WhatsApp’s version of Stories, called Status, hit 450 million daily active users in May, up 80 percent from July 2017. Facebook and Messenger Stories have 300 million daily active users.
Facebook has shared user numbers for Stories at different times throughout the year.
Zuckerberg also said in October that he thought other social media sites, including Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn, would introduce their own versions of Stories.
There are various reasons why Stories and messaging are becoming more popular.
‘People feel more comfortable being themselves when they know their content will only be seen by a smaller group and when their content won’t stick around forever,’ Zuckerberg told analysts in October.
A November report by eMarketer called out two other reasons: People are sharing more videos and photos instead of text. And they want to broadcast more intimate moments to a smaller audience.
Social media’s dark side may also be fueling the shift, said Wardle, citing ‘a chilling effect caused by increased levels of harassment online.’
Facebook and Instagram didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Misinformation on messaging apps
The spread of false news on messaging apps, including WhatsApp, is already posing challenges for fact-checkers.
WhatsApp was ‘flooded by falsehoods and conspiracy theories‘ during Brazil’s runoff presidential election in October between Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad, Reuters reported.
Some of the misinformation was spread in WhatsApp chat groups that allow up to 256 people to join.
‘Such chat groups are much harder to monitor than the Facebook news feed or Google’s search results,’ Cristina Tardáguila, director of the fact-checking platform Agência Lupa, co-wrote in an op-ed published in The New York Times.
Agência Lupa, the Federal University of Minas Gerais, and the University of São Paulo studied more than 100,000 political images that circulated in 347 WhatsApp groups that were open to the public. They found that more than half of the most-shared images contained misleading information.
The consequences of failing to stop misinformation can be literally fatal.
In India, false rumors of child abductions went viral on WhatsApp, causing mobs to murder at least two dozen innocent people, The New York Times reported in July.
When asked how WhatsApp is combating misinformation, a spokesperson pointed to a blog post outlining WhatsApp’s efforts. These included labeling and limiting the reach of forwarded messages; running full-page newspaper ads in English, Hindi and other languages with tips for spotting fake news; removing spam accounts; and working with governments.
Tracking ephemeral content
Some researchers fear they’ll have a harder time studying the spread of misinformation as ephemeral content becomes more prevalent, since it won’t be ‘online long enough to be flagged, deranked or removed,’ Wardle said.
Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University who’s studied how automated Twitter accounts spread misinformation, said that because of the lack of available data, it’s hard to tell if fake news is being spread through ephemeral content.
‘Even the platforms themselves don’t want to look inside that data because they’re making promises to their customers that it’s private,’ Menczer said. ‘By the time someone realizes that there’s some terrible misinformation that’s causing a genocide, it may be too late.’
Snapchat, which started the whole ephemeral content craze, appears to have kept itself mostly free of fake news and election meddling. The company separates news in a public section called Discover. Snapchat’s editors vet and curate what shows up in that section, making it difficult for misinformation to go viral on the platform.
Instagram, on the other hand, is being considered a ‘key battleground’ for fighting Russian troll propaganda. Russia’s Internet Research Agency used Instagram to sow discord among Americans during the 2016 election and garnered more engagement there than it did on Facebook, researchers at the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge found.
As Facebook pushes more people to post ephemeral content in Stories, the uphill battle against false news could get even harder.