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Monetizing Philanthropy

Clout chasing on social media: The role of controversy in content monetization

Catalina Goanta
The Maastricht Law & Tech Lab is my proudest achievement: populating a law faculty with one computer scientist at a time
・4 min read

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Monetizing controversy

If you spent some time on YouTube, you're likely to recognize the photo above: Logal Paul in a so-called Japanese suicide forest, filming dead bodies for his vlogs. This incident, dating from 2017, is generally cited not only by news outlets but also by academic researchers such as Sophie Bishop, as an example of the dangers associated with the chase for evermore virality and online popularity.

As content monetization is booming on about every single social media platform, and new tools emerge regularly (e.g. Instagram's expansion of Storefront for more affiliate marketing; Twitter's Tip Jar), creators have new incentives to build their online brands and followings.

One of the popular ways in which exposure to online attention can be won is 'clout chasing', which basically entails engaging into something shocking or controversial in order to have increased visibility on the Internet in general or social media in particular. And since engagement, impressions, follower numbers, comments, etc. are part of the pervasive equations calculating creator income, this visibility is essential for creators. With some members of our project team, we wrote a short paper for the first issue of a social science publication called 'Morals & Machines' to map definitions of clout chasing and to understand how it works in the context of content monetization:

This short discussion paper addresses how controversy is monetized online by reflecting on a new iteration of the shock value in media production, identified on social media as the ‘clout chasing’ phenomenon. We first exemplify controversial behavior, and subsequently proceed to defining clout chasing, which we discuss this concept in relation to existing frameworks for the understanding of controversy on social media. We then outline what clout chasing entails as a content monetization strategy, and address the risks associated with this approach. In doing so, we introduce the concept of ‘content self-moderation’, which encompasses how creators use content moderation as a way to hedge monetization risks arising out of their reliance on controversy for economic growth. This concept is discussed in the context of the automated content governance entailed by algorithmic platform architectures, to contribute to existing scholarship on platform governance.

The full paper, 'Clout Chasing for the Sake of Content Monetization: Gaming Algorithmic Architectures with Self-moderation Strategies' is available here.

Implications for the monetization of philanthropy

On the one hand, more virality and exposure leading to more attention can be a good thing when honing that attention to a good cause. However, clout chasing brings a cloud of suspicion over the intentions behind certain actions. A good example in this respect is the recent development around the case of Lil' Tay. Self-styled as 'the youngest flexer in history', Lil' Tay is the online persona of a nine year old girl who shocked the world with her content (including smoking, cursing and showing off her alleged wealth). After getting involved in physical altercations, and having raised a lot of concerns from her more mature audience, Lil' Tay took a long hiatus from her online presence. Her brother has since launched a GoFundMe campaign aimed at raising money for 'her fight against her abusive father'. Legally speaking, the text released with the campaign makes no sense. As minors, children will be in the custody of their legal guardians. Indeed, custody battles can be complex, but nothing that is achieved in the court of public opinion can replace the need for courts (whenever conflicts arise with respect to custody) to solve such conflicts according to applicable family laws. Moreover, the link between the brother raising funds and the mother most likely paying litigation fees is questionable.

In this context, a lot of questions emerge relating to the transparency of the fundraiser, which so far managed to gather around $16k out of a goal of $150k. Corroborating this sum with the Instagram posts made by the brother on his sister's account, it seems the fundraiser is not meeting the expectations of their initiator:

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However, it is noteworthy to mention that for the initiators of fundraisers on GoFundMe, it is not necessary to reach the goal in order to have access to the funds. So far no statements have been released about how the $16k have been or will be used, and judging by the practices around similar fundraisers, no additional information is likely to follow.

Questions for the governance of web monetization

This example highlights the need for more transparency in philanthropy that is connected to content monetization. In addition to technical implementations which ought to allow access to a payment architecture that identifies the needs of its users, other aspects need to be taken into account as well. One of these aspects is legal accountability. In the GoFundMe example above, a person is raising funds allegedly on behalf of a sibling, but with absolutely no legal mandate to do so. If the money is misused, this can potentially result in a violation of criminal law, contract law, donation law, even tax law, to name a few examples. These laws are rarely harmonized, so different standards apply to different jurisdictions. For a fully transparent ecosystem, these laws need further mapping, as well as implementing into existing technical frameworks.

Discussion (4)

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chrislarry profile image
Chris Lawrence

Love these posts! Thank you @catalinagoanta for you and your team bringing this research and resources to the community. Have you seen what we do with charity payment pointers on the site? @cyberdees and the program staff is thinking about a lightweight campaign to have others use charity payment pointers in their exploration of WM. Would love to hear your thoughts about how we might help the community experiment with these ideas.

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Catalina Goanta Author

Thanks for this! Will definitely take a deeper look at the pointers for our next team meeting! We should have an event on the topic of a lightweight campaing to engage with more experts and interested folks, and even map and integrate some of the legal considerations. How would you suggest to proceed? We could propose something for next week?

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Chris Lawrence

Next week is probably too fast a turnaround on our end. Maybe we could collaborate to jump-start a discussion thread on these topics?

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chrislarry profile image
Chris Lawrence

@catalinagoanta I noticed you don't have a payment pointer on your posts, more here about how to do that.

That means that the payment pointer defaults to the one we set for the site, which for May and June is for @ushahidi and previous to that was Contract for the Web and Artist Rescue Trust.

Erika blogged about our efforts here and you can see the list of charity payment pointers here.

We would like to do more experimenting with getting people to use these payment pointers and how we might do more collective fundraising. We have a few small prototype experiments we are talking about, but you and your team might have more cool ideas!