It just so happened that two books I put on hold at the library ages ago (Team Human and How To Do Nothing) became available at the same time and were about mostly the same thing: the attention economy, why it is very bad for us, and how we need to reconnect with each other and with the physical world around us to lessen its grip. I read them both over a couple of days, and came away with two things:
1. How To Do Nothing is way better than Team Human, if you’re interested but don’t have time for both.
2. It isn’t really an “Attention Economy”
Attention focuses on the gentlest-sounding name for the resource they’re exploiting, but that’s kind of like calling a diamond mine part of the “jewelry economy.” Yes, a lot of the diamonds will end up in jewelry; but that is a pretty dishonest description of a dirty, stressful, dangerous, and often deadly operation that digs rocks up out of the ground for further processing.
What is it they’re digging out of the human psyche to refine into Attention, or Engagement?
It’s outrage: anger, fear, and disgust.
And our social media feeds use algorithms that put content most likely to create that reaction right at the top, because that’s what gets the most likes, shares, and comments. In Team Human, for example, Rushkoff shares how social media algorithms have learned to put photos of our exes having fun on the tops of our feeds because it gets the most “engagement” (i.e. encourages FB stalking). Our social media companies profit from upsetting us.
Personality Psychology Backgrounder on Emotions & Political Convictions
The connection between feelings and political orientation is a two-way street, and fear, anger and disgust play a huge role.
In the five-factor (or OCEAN) personality model, “openness to new experiences” is highly predictive of political orientation, with those scoring low more likely to be strongly conservative, and those scoring high more likely to be highly progressive. This correlation has a lot to do with fear, anger and disgust: those who are low in openness have stronger fear/anger/disgust reactions to all stimuli, particularly novel stimuli, so “what’s new” triggers a “this is dangerous, threatening, probably gross and contaminated” reaction: people who are shown to be more sensitive to these emotions (say, a stronger disgust reaction to a picture of a dead animal) are more likely to be conservative. Anything from gay marriage to working mothers to a zero-carbon economy is new, and triggers anger and disgust and a visceral, knee-jerk, “NO.”
But while the sensitivity to these emotions predicts political orientation, you can also push someone to embrace more conservative political positions by causing feelings of anger, disgust, and fear: if you tell experiment participants to use the washroom before a test measuring political beliefs, for example, and one group gets a nice clean washroom to use and the other group gets a dirty one, the one who gets the dirty bathroom will endorse more conservative (and punitive) policies.
So, if you were to hazard a guess about the specific dangers of a social media business model that primes people to feel outraged all the time, what might it be?
Seems like it would push people to adopt more conservative positions over time.
And isn’t that what we’re seeing–on social media and in other areas of our lives? More outrage, and a general shift to the right among a lot of the population: Proud Boys, Yellow Vests, Jordan Fucking Peterson, increasing sentiment against immigrants and refugees, more hate crimes?
Yeah, it’s speculative, but the science that there is backs me up.
The hard thing is figuring out what to do about it. Successive waves of people trying to “get off Facebook” or “get off Twitter” hardly make a dent, because as awful and predatory as the business model is, that’s where many of the critical conversations of our time are taking place. People aren’t really watching TV news anymore, which isn’t a conversation anyway; and if they are, they’re likelier to be watching the hellspawn propaganda shows than they used to be. Traditional news media are scrambling to keep any kind of viable business model with the “share the post first get the facts later” model that’s so successful for social media and so disastrous for our democracies: we need a free, accountable press that delivers reliable and well-considered news to our citizens, but increasingly, if newspapers try to actually do that, they get eaten for lunch by propagandistic competitors. And as a result, our politicians are often having to respond, not to what actually happened, but how it was portrayed on FaceBook and Twitter memes.
I have my own approach, which I call FaceBook Hygeine:
1. If you don’t have time to read the whole article, you don’t have time to comment on it.
2. If you don’t have time to fact-check–the article, the story, the photo, the meme–you don’t have time to share.
The first because the people who write news headlines are not the same as the people who write news articles, and often, the actual article is a whole lot less inflammatory and salacious than the headline–because the headline is meant to suck you in. But if it doesn’t manage to, at least it can get you to “engage” by making you so mad you can’t help but speak your mind … about a completely misinformed or counter-factual claim made in a headline that isn’t connected to the content of the article.
And the second because, given how dysfunctional and competitive news media is nowadays, even something appearing in a news article isn’t necessarily true. And of course memes and photos we all know are routinely faked. Even videos now can be faked.
Checking the basic facts of a piece rarely takes more than five minutes, and if you open a new browser tab to google it in, you won’t be helping to train FB or Twitter algorithms in what gets your goat.
This helps so much. It really does. It’s not the systems overhaul that we need to clean up our social media messes, but it keeps my own pages tidy and defensible without bowing out of political speech.
If you are, by the way, interested in knowing more about how and why political parties are targeting their ads to you specifically, you can try using this FB Chrome/Firefox extension: whotargetsme.
A Tiny Aside On Timothy Morton’s Environmental Philosophy, Just Because
“Commodity fetishism isn’t about just the alienation of humans, but the alienation of any entity whatsoever from its sensuous qualities, as we just saw. Production, as in the writing of a brilliant poem, is the thing you can’t help doing, your species-being. This is exactly how it can be exploited. It just happens anyway, so that the capitalist can dip a bucket into its flow to extract labor time from it and homogenize it. The capitalist exploits this fact, the non-chosen, non-‘imaginative’ part of me that I don’t have to plan, the fact that I’m a being like a silkworm. Which is precisely why my labour can be equated with the productivity of the soil–both are conveniently spontaneous bits of ‘nature’ that capitalism can turn into blank screens for value computation.” (Humankind, p. 60) (emphasis mine)
Let’s extend this thought experiment a little bit:
If humans can’t help but be productive, can’t help but make and create; and if capitalists then skim that off from us to create the value they profit by–which seems reasonable to me, and true–then what of emotions?
We can’t help but feel. Joy and sorrow and grief and humour and fear and anger and confusion and curiosity bubble out of us 24/7; feelings permeate us all the time, and form the basis of our rationality, our values, and our choices.
And if someone can fertilize that and nurture it with ideas (true or not) until we are boiling over with the kinds of feelings that keep us glued to our screens and our feeds; if someone can then use our feelings to get us to help fertilize our friends and families and acquaintances, to get more feelings out of them until we are all brimming over, like one farmer who plants their field with GMO seeds that spread on the wind until everyone’s growing GMO crops whether they wanted to or not; particularly the darker feelings like anger and fear and disgust and outrage because they are so compelling and contagious…
…and if they can build a business model that profits off it …
Isn’t that social media?
Isn’t that what FaceBook and Twitter have done? Aren’t they profiting off our rage?
Wouldn’t this, and the algorithms they’ve built, encourage them to allow and even encourage any outrageous message, no matter how far from the truth, so long as it gets someone to hit the “share” button and yell “this pisses me off!” to their 500 friends?
I don’t know about you, but the thought that social media has effectively turned my brain into the equivalent of a newly-broken field, to be seeded with anger and fear, fertilized with constantly enraging news whether real or fake, and then “likes” and “shares” harvested for their profit at my expense–this makes me feel ill. Our increasing polarization, the steady erosion of community and compassion, the proliferation of “alternative facts” and misinformation: all of these are accepted as externalized business costs of new and unregulated industries.
And the whole business model is built on profiting from the manipulation of our most intimate and interior experiences: our values and feelings.
George Orwell comes up a lot these days, and for many valid horrifying reasons; but the ending of 1984 was in retrospect too generous by far. In 1984, if you don’t remember, the protagonist fell in love and conspired against the government, both illegal; but was convinced that so long as he still loved his girlfriend the ending could not be too bad. And he believed that nothing could change his feelings for her.
Facts, at any rate, could not be kept hidden. They could be tracked down by inquiry, they could be squeezed out of you by torture. But if the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings, for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.
In 1984, it took torture to make him despise her.
In 2019, it takes algorithms to make us hate each other–and not even for something as large as propping up a totalitarian regime–just a fatter bonus for a FaceBook executive. (Which isn’t to say that a lot of the alt-right neo-nazi crap isn’t totally hateful and doesn’t deserve it–but we hardly need lies to fan those flames higher; the reality is bad enough.)
We need systemic answers to this; as much as I rely on my Facebook Hygiene, we can’t simply expect billions of people to spontaneously and consistently restrain themselves; this is why we regulate casinos and driving speeds. What those regulations might be, I’m not well versed enough in this to say.
What I can say in the meantime is: BE CAREFUL. When you click, like, share, or comment, you train the algorithms in what to show you, and they won’t care if it’s harmful or enraging or a lie. All they care is how much time you spend on it and how likely you are to spread it around. Anger is a necessary fuel for change, but it can also burn people out, and without a goal it can push people to the right.