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March 23, 2023

Ask the expert: Should you pay for Meta’s and Twitter’s verified identity subscriptions?

Social media services have generally been free of charge for users, but with ad revenues slowing down, social media companies are looking for new revenue streams beyond targeted ads. Now, Twitter is charging for its blue checkmark verification, and Meta and Twitter both charge for identity protection.

Anjana Susarla poses in a hallway with her arms crossed.
Anjana Susarla, Omura-Saxena Professor in Responsible AI in the MSU Broad College of Business,

Anjana Susarla, Omura-Saxena Professor in Responsible AI in the Michigan State University Broad College of Business, explains the security and privacy concerns associated with paid verification and identity protection on social media.

Answers are excerpts from an article originally published in The Conversation.

What is the likelihood that social media users will pay for better security — and that the platforms will deliver on their promises?

Some people might pay Facebook for improved security, but, overall, collective well-being depends on having a very large group of users investing in better security for all. Picture a medieval city under siege from an invader, with each family in the city responsible for a stretch of the wall. Collectively, the community is only as strong as the weakest link. It will be interesting to see if Twitter and Meta still deliver their promised paid-for results even if they don’t get the desired number of paid users for these services.”

While large platforms such as Facebook and Twitter could benefit from lock-in, meaning having users who are dependent on or at least heavily invested in them, it’s not clear how many users will pay for these features. This is an area in which the platforms’ profit motive is in conflict with their overall goal, which is to have a large enough community that people will continue using it because all of their social or business connections are there.

What are the risks of social media platforms putting a premium on security?

Security, user authentication and identity verification are issues that concern everyone, not just content creators or those who can afford to pay. 

In the first three months of 2022 alone, nearly one-fifth of teens and adults in the U.S. reported their social media accounts getting hacked. The same survey found that 24% of consumers reported being overwhelmed by devices and subscriptions, indicating significant fatigue and cognitive overload in having to manage their virtual experiences.

Some cybersecurity experts already have pointed out the downsides to monetizing security features. In particular, in giving a very rushed timeline — one month from announcement to implementation — to pay for a more secure option, there is a real risk that many users will turn off two-factor authentication altogether.

What security and privacy risks are associated with social media use?

Social media platforms aren’t really free. Consider the adage: “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.” Companies such as Meta and Twitter monetize the enormous tracts of data they have about users through a complex online advertising-driven ecosystem. The system makes use of very granular individual user data and predictive analytics to help companies microtarget online ads and track and compare advertising views with outcomes. There are hidden costs associated with people’s loss of privacy and control over their personal information, including loss of trust and vulnerability to identity theft.

What obstacles hinder individual security and privacy on social media?

Charging for identity protection raises the question of how much each person values privacy or security online. Markets for privacy, which are based on the idea that an individual’s concern for privacy can be something that companies charge for have posed a similar conundrum. For digital products in particular, consumers are not fully informed about how their data is collected, for what purposes and with what consequences. 

Social media users face imperfect or asymmetric information about their data, so they do not know how to correctly value features such as security. In the standard economic logic, markets assign prices based on buyers’ willingness to pay and sellers’ lowest acceptable bids, or reservation prices. However, digital platforms such as Meta benefit from individuals’ data by virtue of their size — they have such a large amount of personal data. There is no market for individual data rights, even though there have been a few policy proposals, such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s call for a data dividend.

How does monetizing social media security options affect vulnerable populations without identity protection?

Not everyone can afford to pay Meta or Twitter to keep their personal information safe. Monetization efforts might hurt those most vulnerable, such as those who need Meta to find access to job information or the elderly and infirm who use social media to learn about what is happening in their communities. Communities that have invested resources in building a shared online space using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook may also be harmed. 

For those who are scammed, the process of account recovery is frustrating and time-consuming. Social bots have become increasingly more sophisticated. Scams increased by almost 288% from 2021 to 2022, according to a report from the Identity Theft Resource Center. Scammers and phishers have found it easy enough to gain access to people’s personal information and impersonate others.

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