In his new book, The Hype Machine, MIT Sloan School of Management professor Sinan Aral takes on the greatest communications force of our lifetime: social media. Aral, who directs the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, provides an insightful and level-headed analysis of the power, peril, and potential of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social platforms for both organizations and for society. The work is the result of some two decades of research he has dedicated to social media. In this podcast episode, he describes the double-edged sword of what he terms “the hype machine.” This conversation was captured as both an MIT Sloan Management Review article and as this week’s Three Big Points episode.
Sinan Aral: I think that the devil is in the details of what you are using it for. And I think that businesses can use social media to make consumers aware of their products and services [and] to be targeted in their communications so that they are speaking to the right people who would get the most value out of their products and services.
For Further Reading
When we consume food that we buy from a grocery store, it’s extensively labeled — we know how many calories it has; whether it has trans fats; how many sugars it has; whether it’s produced in a facility that also processes wheat and peanuts, if you have allergies. All of that is labeled. But when we consume information on Facebook or on Twitter, it doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of labeling in terms of where the information comes from and what’s contained in the information.
More transparency is also better in the sense of understanding how businesses use social media. But I think that the transparency really has to begin with the social media platforms themselves. That’s where the transparency is most needed and most lacking.
Paul Michelman: I’m Paul Michelman, and this is MIT Sloan Management Review’s Three Big Points. Each episode, we take on one topic that leaders need to be on top of right now and leave you with three key takeaways for you and your organization.
The world of social media hasn’t had the best PR of late, between the Russian involvement in the 2016 election, the proliferation of fake news, and whatever latest scandal is playing out on Facebook. As consumers and citizens, we are bombarded with images and messages all day, every day. Thanks to social media, we’ve never been more aware of all that is going on in the world. Or is it possible that we are not nearly as aware as we think we are?
Sinan Aral: Things are much more hypertargeted. With newspapers, with television — it was transparent what the messages were, and everyone saw all the messages. But now you can bifurcate the population into many, many, many small groups and send them messages that other people may not even be aware that those small groups are receiving. And so you can see attempts at manipulation or persuasion at the micro level but aggregated and coordinated to the population level, where nobody sees all of the other persuasion attempts that are going on. So that’s very different than newspapers or television. The other thing that’s very different are the algorithms — the idea that newsfeed algorithms take in what we like and engage with and give us recommendations for what to read next, and the “people you may know” or friend-suggestion algorithms take in who we’re connected to and what we like in order to suggest who else we should follow. Those algorithms are going to perpetuate certain path dependencies in society.
Paul Michelman: That’s MIT Sloan professor Sinan Aral, who wrote the new book The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health — and How We Must Adapt. He’s spent years researching what he calls the hype loop — the feedback loop we are all experiencing now, thanks to the explosive growth of social media. Aral argues that the ongoing dialogue between machine intelligence and human decision-making is changing our society at every level.
Sinan Aral: The hype machine, the social media industrial complex, is such a powerful tool, and we have seen it as both being used for good and for bad purposes. It’s used in foreign election interference, and it’s used to market the use of condoms or to prevent the spread of disease. We can achieve the promise and avoid the peril.
Paul Michelman: Which gets us to what companies can and should do to capture the benefits of social media and exploit these platforms for their positive benefits — without being overly exploitative of the people we are trying to influence.
Sinan Aral: The interesting thing about marketing is that it is a technology like any other. When we think about marketing to promote voting or condom use or to stop dirty-needle sharing or to get people to socially distance or wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic, we don’t think of it as manipulative or in some way malign. We think of it as persuasion to promote positive behaviors. And I think that marketing is always in some sense a tool that can be used for good and evil.
Paul Michelman: From political movements to nonprofits to major Fortune 500 giants, organizations of all sizes can better understand — and more effectively use — social media to their advantage.
Sinan Aral: The great thing about social media is it is essentially democratizing voice, so that anyone who is committed to learning how to use it can use it to get their message out into the world and can be persuasive with it. It does take a bit of commitment to a scientific approach in order to do it well and effectively.
Paul Michelman: The more data-savvy the organization, the more effective companies will be in this hype machine world we are living in. The important thing, says Aral, is to create an integrated and optimized social media marketing program. The key here is walking the fine line, though, between cutting-edge strategy and tipping too far to that side of evil. Companies are walking a tight — and ever-tightening — rope.
Sinan Aral: I think that the devil is in the details of what you are using it for. And I think that businesses can use social media to make consumers aware of their products and services [and] to be targeted in their communications so that they are speaking to the right people that would get the most value out of their products and services. I always see, for instance, advertisements for solutions to diseases or solutions to conditions that people have. And I always think to myself, “Wow, if the people who actually had these diseases and conditions could hear these messages, how much better their life might be.” Targeted messaging can really help get the right message to the right people, and social media can be incredibly well targeted. That’s part of the promise when used correctly. However, targeting for election manipulation is equally targeted — for instance, to suppress the vote of Black voters in the United States. That is targeting for nefarious purposes.
Paul Michelman: Now, it might be tempting to look at what more nefarious players are doing and co-opting those same tactics for your company’s own ends.
Sinan Aral: The two questions that I’m asked most often in my role as an educator and a scientist at MIT are, one, did Russia change the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election through its election manipulation on social media, and will it change the results of the 2020 election? And the second question is, how can I measure the return on investment to my social media investments? And the interesting thing that I realized in writing the book is that the answer to those two questions is the same. There is a unity about using social media that, when used by the Russians to affect elections or when used by businesses to promote their products and services, the same process can be used to optimize the persuasive power of social media to generate engagement, insight, and action. And those processes are described in the book. Then another part of the book describes how we can limit the nefarious uses while promoting the positive uses. And that gets into the use of what I call the four levers — money, code, norms, and laws.
Paul Michelman: How do we specifically avoid some of these pitfalls in the future?
Sinan Aral: There are a number of different areas of regulation that need to be examined in detail and with a scientific approach. And the ones that immediately come to mind are antitrust, which is front and center today — does Facebook, for instance, need to be broken up? Privacy — we have the California privacy legislation and other states creating legislation, which is becoming a patchwork of privacy regulation in the United States. Do we need federal privacy legislation in the U.S.? Obviously, we have the GDPR in Europe. We have China’s approach to privacy, which is the exact opposite, where the state can basically read and see all messages and data. The regulation of free speech and hate speech, the boundary between free speech and harmful speech — that’s another one. Speech and political advertising on social media — should it be labeled? Should it be regulated like speeches on television for political advertising? As well, fake news. Obviously, the regulation of fake news is worrying because in authoritarian regimes, those types of laws are used to suppress minority opinions. We see the case of Maria Ressa in the Philippines, and the Duarte government there using the laws to silence journalists. And there are countless other examples around the world. Each of these questions is its own Pandora’s box of conversation, but each of them, in my mind, has a path to a better future within it.
Paul Michelman: But counting on legislation alone isn’t enough — it moves much slower than technology, for starters. Consumers and companies are also playing a huge role in correcting bad behavior, like in the cases of the Stop Hate for Profit movement or the Delete Facebook movement.
Sinan Aral: In a sense, we as businesses and citizens and users of social media need to express what kind of values we would like to see espoused within the social media industrial complex. We can espouse those values through movements like the Stop Hate for Profit movement and affect the money or the business models that the platforms use to create profit. The Stop Hate for Profit movement was an example of the norms of businesses and society pushing back on hate speech and violent speech, and requesting and requiring social platforms to moderate and regulate that kind of harmful speech. And they did that by hitting the pocketbooks of the platforms like Facebook. Now, it did cause a very significant drop in advertising dollars, but Facebook is such a large business that it was a small piece of the overall pie for them. But it demonstrates one tool that we have in our arsenal for steering social media towards promise and away from peril, which is to pressure businesses to change in the ways that we would like to see them change.
Paul Michelman: But aside from external pressures, this also comes down to important decision-making and oversight from social platforms and their leaders. They need to find ways to build trust — and trust is based on being transparent.
Sinan Aral: For instance, take fake news. When we consume food that we buy from a grocery store, it’s extensively labeled — we know how many calories it has; whether it has trans fats; how many sugars it has; whether it’s produced in a facility that also processes wheat and peanuts, if you have allergies. All of that is labeled. But when we consume information on Facebook or on Twitter, it doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of labeling in terms of where the information comes from and what’s contained in the information.
Also, the platforms need to be more transparent, providing data to scientists and researchers so that we can understand the effects that it has on our democracy, on our public health, on our elections, and on our economy. And that kind of data transparency — I outline many different ways we can achieve it in the book — is essential to understand how the hype machine works under the hood and therefore how we can steer it. More transparency is also better in the sense of understanding how businesses use social media. But I think that the transparency really has to begin with the social media platforms themselves. That’s where the transparency is most needed and most lacking.
Paul Michelman: That’s Sinan Aral. He’s a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the author of the book The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health — and How We Must Adapt.
And now, three big points about how companies can build effective and trustworthy social media marketing strategies.
Number one: You need to stay current if you want to stay relevant.
Sinan Aral: I think that influencers have to stay current. The key to an influencer’s shelf life is how they can adapt to the world and remain relevant. Certainly, we’ve seen some influencers come and go, and then we’ve seen others with just tremendous staying power that are there perennially, being influential every year. And I think that if you had to pinpoint one thing that separates the two, it’s the ability of the perennial influencer to remain relevant and adapt to changing times. And I think that that is a lesson for all of us in the sense that businesses need to remain relevant, people — opinion and thought leaders — need to remain relevant, [and] educational institutions.
Paul Michelman: Number two: Regulation is necessary, but we need to put pressure on platforms to take greater responsibility for their own environments.
Sinan Aral: I believe that transparency must begin with the platforms themselves. We need a lot more information as users about the provenance of the information we’re seeing, about the veracity of the information we’re seeing, about the context of the information we’re seeing — for instance, take fake news.
Paul Michelman: And number three: It’s a fine line — we all need to tread carefully.
Sinan Aral: This tool, the hype machine, the social media industrial complex, is such a powerful tool. And we have seen it as both being used for good and for bad purposes. It’s used in foreign election interference, and it’s used to market the use of condoms or to prevent the spread of disease. And so, the point of the book is that we can achieve the promise and avoid the peril.
Paul Michelman: That’s all for this week’s Three Big Points. Remember, you can find us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and wherever fine podcasts are streamed. If you’d like to support our show, please post a rating or a review on whatever podcast platform you prefer.
Three Big Points is produced by Mary Dooe. Music by Matt Reed. Marketing and audience development by Desiree Barry. Our coordinating producers are Michele DeFilippo and Mackenzie Wise.