Katie Chapin, a senior studying marketing and finance, always knew she wanted to write an Honors thesis. She had originally considered studying and doing research in psychology, which is now her minor, but as she moved through her undergraduate career with majors in the A.B. Freeman School of Business, she became more and more interested in studying Facebook’s business model as it relates to her majors.
Katie is researching the spread of misinformation on social media platforms, focusing specifically on how Facebook is filtering the misinformation that appears on its network. She says the complexities in dealing with misinformation lay in the issue that “these platforms largely are vehicles for free speech, and that’s how they increase their user engagement. But, at the same time, the spread of misinformation has gotten out of hand to the point where users on these platforms are being exposed to it through their friends, not even through their own social media.”
With one case Katie is currently studying being the spread of misinformation related to COVID-19, this thesis is especially timely. She says that “misinformation spreads so rapidly when there is such an unknown topic, such as the pandemic… As soon as someone posts something, it really goes viral with shocking headlines that spread misinformation because people are so desperate to feel that security right now.” She says that, with the additional vulnerability to misinformation that COVID has created, Facebook’s solution is to work with third-party fact-checkers to flag misinformation, giving users the option to then be directed to sites that have actual information on the subject, like the CDC in COVID-related cases. In addition to pandemic-related misinformation, case studies of political misinformation campaigns also figure prominently in Katie’s research.
Katie says that another main issue of filtering misinformation comes down to opinion pieces. The “web of misinformation” is especially challenging to combat, even with artificial intelligence and innovative algorithms, when questionable material surfaces that “may or may not, depending on your opinion, be classified as misinformation,” according to Katie. Companies must strike the balance of “both protecting users and consumers of these platforms, but ensuring that they are still vehicles of free speech, and that they’re not really interfering with that right.”
While Facebook’s handling of misinformation seems to fall more into the discipline of marketing than it does finance, Facebook’s policies have a heavy effect on their bottom line. “I wanted to look at the whole business model effect on Facebook,” Katie says, “because their profitability is so dependent on their user engagement.” Their handling of misinformation, between individual users’ frustration and larger advertising boycotts, has enormous effects on their company at large. This relationship between misinformation and profitability has tied together Katie’s majors, and it is this interplay between marketing and finance that Katie hopes to bring with her in her business career after graduation.
While Katie intends to pursue finance and wealth management, she sees her research applying to any business field. She says that the entire business model of a social media company is much more complex than she ever realized, and is “so much more than you think— there are so many more variables that go into it than just making money.”