February 21, 2022 | BBC Radio 4

Algorithms and pandemic pressure: the perfect storm on social media

ISD’s CEO Sasha Havlicek went on BBC Radio 4’s series ‘Death by Conspiracy’ to talk about the effects of the changing social media landscape due to algorithms and the pressure the pandemic put on existing models. Sasha explains how social media platforms’ business models have shifted over recent years prioritising engagement for profit.

“Zuckerberg himself admitted that the content that comes closest to the red line of acceptability gets the most traction, is the most viral,” Sasha said. “So we got this push toward more sensationalist, quicker, shorter nuanced conversation online.”

In episode 8 of the wider series, specialist reporter Marianna Spring looks at “talented” and “well-liked” Gary Matthew’s life and the order of events leading up to his death in 2021 after testing positive for COVID-19. Gary’s social media posts began to lean toward conspiracy theory content beginning in 2018 in support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and by 2020 he was retweeting and posting mis- and disinformation relating to the pandemic.

In 2020, Gary like many others fell down a rabbit hole of uncertainties behind the pandemic, depopulation theories, antivaxx narratives and more. “This was a massive test for these platforms, and, by and large, they failed. Research we did in 2020 saw content from known COVID disinfo sites get 13x more engagement on Facebook, than the CDC and WHO (World Health Organisation) content combined,” she said.

ISD recognises the restrictions, banners and bans the media platforms have implemented since the beginning of the infodemic and pandemic. However, the bottom line that has been seen over and over again is that profit is being prioritised. “The bigger the (engagement) rates the more money they make. COVID and the infodemic has probably been a pretty good boom for the platforms in terms of their bottom line.”