Social media’s crass agenda poisons our real lives

Social-media companies trick people into thinking they are in control

Google’s experimental “happy” newsroom processes were made public after the Brazil vs Germany World Cup semi-final – there was a distinction between negative terminology topping searches, yet more upbeat content being shared on social media. Photograph: Rowan Staszkiewicz/PA Wire.

Google’s experimental “happy” newsroom processes were made public after the Brazil vs Germany World Cup semi-final – there was a distinction between negative terminology topping searches, yet more upbeat content being shared on social media. Photograph: Rowan Staszkiewicz/PA Wire.

Mon, Jul 14, 2014, 01:00

In this paper last week, Michael Harding referred to Gabriel García Márquez’s idea that what matters in life is not what happens, but what and how you remember it, “it’s only in the remembrance of things that we awaken. We live our lives a second time with increased pleasure and relish when we tell the tale of it, or cherish the memory of it.”

That is also the reason for social media’s success. It is not just the “sharing” of information or the connections people seek to make, because we know now, with a good few miles on the social media clock, that for the most part it distances, disconnects and desensitises us, rather than draws us closer. But the retelling and the remembrance and the urge to remember and retell is the status update or the tweet. It’s a mixture of Márquez’s belief that we awaken in remembrance, and John Cage’s 1949 Lecture on Nothing: “I’ve nothing to say and I am saying it.”

Empathy is one of the great battles of the internet. It is the erosion of empathy – when we’re met with screens, not faces – that sees people become cruel bullies and careless insulters. In controlling empathy, tech companies are at the precipice of wider emotional manipulation of “users”, formerly known as “people”.

‘Emotional contagion’

Recently, Facebook, along with two universities, made public a study in which they manipulated the emotional flavour of people’s news feeds. When positive content was muted and negative content upped, “people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred”. By controlling the sentiment of information you see, Facebook can change how you feel. They call this “emotional contagion”. If this is the study Facebook is happy to make public, then what is it doing in private?

This emotional filter bubble has correlations with the rise in frivolous news. Google’s experimental “happy” newsroom processes were made public after the Brazil vs Germany World Cup semi-final. After analysing their databases for people’s searches, there was a distinction between negative terminology topping searches, yet more upbeat content being shared on social media. Thus, to create more shared or viral content, the experimental newsroom focused on the positive stuff, and stayed away from the negative. That is the future. A newsroom where the trivial and tittering triumphs. Yoga-baiting priests, indecisive country stars, babies stuck in mop buckets (a story RTÉ published online on Friday). Why stop at the World Cup? Surely there are some fun or heartstring-tugging stories to come out of the Israeli military pummelling Gaza instead of the reality of killing innocent civilians? What’s “shared” becomes what’s “important”. The difficulties with “liking” negative news stories mean that negative content also gains less traction.

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