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.

Stories being read more or shared more mean they rise to the top of “most read” lists on news websites. It’s pretty obvious then, that increased public interest in frivolous news such as the ridiculous cycle of Garth Brooks stories, beget even more Garth Brooks stories, until news feeds, news sites and newspapers and television and radio broadcasts are saturated.

In the same way text messages aren’t the best format for sarcasm, the internet does not do wabi sabi. You are either hero or villain, hot or not, funny or die, real or faked. You are fun or boring. You are most-read or pushed to the bottom of a feed. And frivolous content is cheaper and faster to produce. Why waste time on investigations and complicated news stories about finance or politics or legislation or corruption, when people just want a LOL? The manipulation of news – examining what people responded to more – was inevitably going to lead to the manipulation of emotions: examining the emotional triggers that lead people to respond.

As the trivial continues its rise to the top, the ultimate trick played by social media entities is fooling people into thinking they are in control. Seduction perfected is making someone believe their actions and decisions are of their own making. The potential for tech companies to distort and manipulate emotional triggers and responses is massive. We cannot assume that such tech companies will always do so for “good”. “Good” certainly should not be left to be defined by Zuckerbergs or Pages or Dorseys. Coercive persuasion has long been an element of religion and oppressive societies. How ironic that, given “internet freedom”, it could become an element of the great digital landscape. The libertarian philosophy of the web is a fallacy when controlled by billion-dollar corporations.

In the second season of Orange is the New Black on Netflix – a service that uses algorithms to decide what you want to watch – Red, a middle-aged Russian prisoner, explains the internet to an elderly convict. “You’re telling me all the information in the world is in wires?” she replies. “But people are still stupid, right?”

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