Enrage to Engage: How Attention Economy Profits From Outrage While Driving Us Crazy
Digital media profits from our anger.
Outrage is intentionally engineered and algorithmically promoted because it drives user ENGAGEMENT.
And it’s destroying our minds.
Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers
Filter bubbles and echo chambers are not just Internet slang – they are actual industry terms from the science of social network analysis.
Filter bubble means you only see what you want to see. The algorithm correctly predicts what information the user will click on based on their digital footprint. Which is usually the information that confirms our existing biases, effectively isolating us from different points of view.
Echo chamber means you only discuss what you already believe with those who already agree with you. Filter bubbles sort people into separate echo chambers of personalized content in which existing views are reinforced, and opposing views are absent.
Confirmation bias of the personalized news cycle reigns supreme in the digital echo chambers. We like ideas that fit our own preconceptions. We want to hear we are right. We want to see confirmation of what we already believe to be the truth – and the algorithms behind our screens are happy to feed it to us.
The alternative is uncomfortable. Having our established opinions contradicted makes us feel bad. Insecure. We don’t want to see online content that makes us doubt our intellectual superiority. If we come across a piece of news we consider to be blatant propaganda from the “other side”, we turn it off with disgust. So to keep our user engagement, the algorithm has to appease our confirmation bias, feeding us more of the same. Making us close-minded, siloed in our entrenched opinions.
Filter bubbles and echo chambers place every user in their own “reality” by spoon-feeding them personalized content. We confuse this “reality” with actual truth, and when others don’t think the same way, we exclaim: “Don’t they see what’s going on?!” No, they don’t – that’s the point. They see a completely different version of reality inside their own echo chamber.
The filter bubble+echo chamber effect puts each of us in our own little informational prison.
This is brainwashing, not democracy.
No wonder we don’t understand each other. No wonder we are at each other’s throats.
When people attempt to have a conversation with someone from another echo chamber, all hell breaks loose. They have nothing in common, as they have not been exposed to an opposite point of view in a civilized manner. As Nietzsche said: “As soon as you feel yourself against me you have ceased to understand my position and consequently my arguments!”
Outrage of “US” vs “THEM” erupts.
Angry by Design
They want you to gasp. To exclaim: “Can you believe this?!” To retweet, to forward, to contradict, to share, to comment, to refute.
TO ENRAGE IS TO ENGAGE.
Ironically, a great way to generate more traffic between the users in one echo chamber is to provoke them into outrage about the OPPOSITE echo chamber. It does not have to be done by real people – bots will do, as long as the users are poked with a strong negative emotion that serves as clickbait.
It is painfully obvious that online debates over any controversial issue quickly and inevitably spiral into madness. The parties involved – liberal vs conservative, black vs white, straight vs gay, religious vs atheist, men vs women – end up with high blood pressure and crippling anxiety. Accomplishing nothing from their agenda. Just being glued to the screens in a state of total misery.
We cannot ignore something that makes us angry. It would be counter to our evolutionary biology of survival: fight your enemy to the death. So we ENGAGE with the digital clickbait that created this outrage in us.
Engagement translates to profits – not the truth. Follow the money.
Finding an algorithmic way to push a big red button titled “RAGE” in our subconscious mind becomes a feature of persuasive design.
Outrage is a primitive emotion. It resides in our animal brain, occurs automatically and cannot be rationally controlled. Anger as a lever of control is cheap: negative emotions are easy to produce and easy to exploit. Rage is a part of our automatic fight-or-flight response system: the user reacts (ENGAGES with the platform) without conscious and rational thought. An obedient robot.
Most people only have time to read what social media platforms place in front of them in the feeds. From these shallow offerings people are most likely to choose clickbait that invokes negative emotions: FEAR or ANGER. We are that predictable, and algorithms figured us out. There is no evil human mind behind this digital diet that makes us sad and mad. It is algorithmically driven for the purpose of “user engagement”.
Nothing personal, user – your state of mind is none of our concern.
Paranoia, not Reconciliation
No one ever changed their mind or political views as a result of encountering online outrage from the other side. We only become more entrenched in our views, more angry, more unhappy, more anxious about the state of the world. Accomplishing nothing for ourselves – while generating profits for the social media from our time-consuming spitting matches.
We work for them for free. And sacrifice our wellbeing on the altar of their bottom line.
It’s in the interest of the attention economy to drive division among people. Without conflict and drama there is no story. If necessary, a divisive line is created where there was none before. Controversy needs to be engineered on a daily basis to keep distracted humans in a fight-or-flight state, or they would not pay attention to the screen, and the money would stop flowing!
It has been proven and quantified. A study found that “Each word of moral outrage added to a tweet increases the rate of retweets by 17%. It takes very little effort to tip the emotional balance within social media spaces, catalyzing and accelerating further polarization.”
Another study of online anger found that “Anger is the emotion that travels fastest and farthest on social media, compared to all other emotions. As a result, those who post angry messages will inevitably have the greatest influence, and social media platforms will tend to be dominated by anger.”
Clickbait headlines that provoke outrage work beautifully for user engagement. Fake news is even better: paranoia is an efficient way to corral the attention of the users. The Center for Humane Technology cites the study which estimated that fake news spread 6 times faster than truth.
Conspiracy theories are a particularly harmful breed of fake news: outraged users spread these to each other because of their shock value.
So there you have it: outrageous lies spread like wildfire, while truth languishes in oblivion. Unfortunately, the more frequently something appears online, the more believable it becomes.
In our world today, “viral” is a proxy for “truth”.
The Inner Troll
Just read any string of comments on a controversial topic and see how it makes you feel. Upset? Filled with an irresistible desire to add your own nasty comment? It works.
The worst of human nature comes out online. When we are outraged, even the most civilized among us are reduced to our base nature and discover the side of our character Jaron Lanier calls the “Inner Troll”. In his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now he writes about perceived anonymity that makes people behave horribly online. Digital interactions lack empathy – you’d never use such terms face-to-face even with your worst political counterparts.
Jaron Lanier calls social media a BUMMER machine: Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent. His other insightful gems about the culture of online debates are “Social media is making you into an asshole” and “Attention Acquisition leading to Asshole Supremacy”.
Keeping people angry makes them predictable – and therefore controllable. It’s not in the interest of digital media to appeal to our rational brain. That would be a much harder task for the AI than dealing with an emotional brain, that has not changed in 50,000 years. Jaron Lanier again: “If people are furious at morons, they dare not disengage. They are hooked because of provoked natural vigilance”.
The psychological RAGE button algorithmic behavior manipulators are pressing in our brain is our INSTINCT OF SELF-PRESERVATION!
The very foundation of our survival – try to control THAT by having a “fair and balanced” rational political discussion online!
The more we are “engaged by outrage”, the more our emotions spiral out of control. The most uncivilized, paranoid, nasty, and intolerant users are the loudest voices online, and their extreme views are magnified precisely because they are so outrageous. So…engaging. Don’t take the bait. Don’t become one of them. Don’t degrade your humanity for the benefit of the platforms.
They make money when you are angry and upset. You pay the price.
The Price We Pay
While social media companies and news websites profit nicely from enraging – and engaging – angry users, the users themselves pay a very high psychological price. Boiling with rage while helpless to change anything is a recipe for unhappiness. With a possible bonus of a premature heart attack.
Recent psychological research has found that helplessness isn’t just related to unhappiness, HELPLESSNESS IS UNHAPPINESS. The science of positive psychology, pioneered by Martin Seligman, conducted decades of experiments on learned helplessness – how animals and people behave after enduring repeated adversity beyond their control. Their conclusion: clinical depression and anxiety may result from feeling powerless to change a situation.
The consequences of online outrage span the entire range of mental health issues from anxiety to depression to psychosis. In our attempt to regain some sense of control over the issues that make us mad, we keep trying to find more information that would help us “defeat our enemies”. “Being informed” means more screen time: searching, reading, watching, reacting, commenting, forwarding, trolling.
Which is exactly what the Big Other of the attention economy wants: traffic! Plunging us into the ever-repeating cycles of outrage, anxiety, and helplessness.
Anxiety fueled by the media reaches fever pitch and blows up on our loved ones. We unload the stress on our spouses and our children. The damage caused to our minds spills over and wrecks the lives of our family and friends, who now have to deal with a deranged individual completely consumed by the contents of their digital echo chamber.
Hostility reigns. God forbid family members disagree on some political topic. Families stop talking to each other and break apart. Children get hurt. The same children whose young brains have already been destroyed by video games and social media now have no solid ground to stand on – their parents are falling apart too.
Outrage created online eventually spills over into the real world as violence. In recent years it led to violent protests, bloody revolutions, and terrorism. The Pizzagate conspiracy theory of alleged child trafficking generated a lot of paranoia and led to at least one violent incident . Whether outrage happens over real or fake news, social media companies get to keep their profits.
The algorithms do not care about the lines of division, only that keeping users angry is better for the bottom line than keeping them peaceful. Engagement algorithms are behind political unrest, racial violence, religious intolerance, division of any kind – and lots of profitable online traffic.
The divided society is their creation. Engineered for commercial benefit. With peace and democracy as collateral damage.
A Way Out
Stress is more contagious than COVID-19. More people are suffering from digitally induced anxiety of the news cycle than are sick with COVID. Solution? Quarantine from toxic digital media. Your mental health depends on it.
The reasons behind our disagreements actually stem from variances in our understanding of morality. They are different means to the same end: human well-being. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion defines 6 foundations of morality: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression. Liberals and conservatives do not have to judge each other as good or evil – they just measure differently along these dimensions.
Outrage is optional.
One of the ways to reclaim our humanity is to resist the filter bubble/echo chamber effect and diversify our digital diet. We become our own content curator, take that power away from manipulative algorithms, and form our own judgements. Some news aggregators like AllSides.com are actively resisting media bias by collecting opinions from across the spectrum. “When you suspend your faculty of independent judgement, you suspend consciousness. To stop consciousness is to stop life.” (Ayn Rand, Fountainhead, 1943). Maintain your free will and resist the algorithmic mind control.
Another hack is to turn it off altogether. Many high performers practice deliberate selective ignorance to avoid being influenced by third parties, protect their time and their sanity. Jaron Lanier’s advice: “Don’t let your inner troll take control! If it happens in a particular situation – avoid the situation. Leave the platform. Don’t degrade your character”. I couldn’t agree more.
I block hours every day in my schedule to be screen-free. Complete digital detox allows me to concentrate on the real world and process my own thoughts. This disrupts the interface of the attention economy: when I am not looking at the screen, I cannot be influenced – as simple as that.
The only way to be independent from The Matrix is to unplug from it.