Watch Out!

There's digital quicksand in social media.

Posted Jun 25, 2020

Pexels photo 9 free use
Source: Pexels photo 9 free use

The extreme polarization our country is experiencing now is not an accident. Sometimes it gets a little shove from marketers. Here’s how it works:

A common test marketers use is to show potential customers two different product or packaging choices. The choice they make in the test is probably the same one they’ll make in an actual purchase. 

Political marketers use this same strategy. They take a person or a topic that test subjects have demonstrated an interest in (like Trump or Hillary). Then they offer them two alternative choices relative to that topic. 

What they’ve discovered is that the choice people make is almost always the one that makes them the angriest!

And if an item makes people angry enough, they’ll often send it along to someone else.

Researcher Jay Van Bevel and his team of investigators at New York University made a further discovery. They found that the use of hostile, negative words increases the likelihood of items being clicked and spread by “a factor of 20% for each additional word.”

And Facebook’s own data show that the closer an ad gets to actual hate speech the more likely it is to go viral! 

What’s going on here?

The tendency people have of focusing on items that make them angry may seem puzzling. But in terms of evolutionary psychology, it’s quite understandable. Because anger is not a primary emotion, it’s a secondary emotion, a manifestation of the primary emotion of fear.

And fear is something we primates are all hardwired for. 

In terms of early primate history, the ability of our hunter/gatherer ancestors to experience fear and respond quickly to danger was critical to saving their lives.

In contemporary times this means that when we see something on the internet that stimulates our fear/anger response, we’ll probably click on it. Just like our ancestors would have done. It triggers danger.

Fear protects us.

But be careful.

Just because you see something on the internet that makes you angry doesn’t mean it’s true.

Enter Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This is the legislation that provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an “interactive computer service” (like Facebook), who publish information provided by third-party users.

Section 230 has been called “the most important law of the internet.”

What Section 230 means is that if Facebook or Twitter should publish an item that is inflammatory and clearly untrue, Facebook or twitter is not legally liable for it. The individual or organization (or political party!) who provided it to Facebook or Twitter is legally liable.

There are lots of false, conspiratorial, inflammatory items on the internet. And there’s a reason:

The business model for Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other “interactive computer services” is simple. They want to constantly increase their subscriber base. And they want those subscribers to make as many clicks as possible. So, they have a big incentive to provide items that will make you angry!

Because they know you’ll click on them! And they know what you’ll click on, because they have a great deal of data that you’ve inadvertently provided about your personal likes and dislikes. Their algorithms just connect your personal likes and dislikes with incoming items from third party providers. And voila: 

You’re angry!

The advantage?

When a particular site gains an abundance of clicks, the interactive computer service and the third-party provider of the item (perhaps a political party) can then charge more for advertising on the site. 

It’s all about money.

So the business model of these “interactive computer services” like Facebook, Twitter and Google is very simple: Get more customers. Get more clicks.

So the next time you’re cruising around through social media on your computer, keep the following things in mind:

  • The people and algorithms running the interactive communications medium you are using know a great deal about you, and they know what you like and dislike.
  • Much of the “information” they provide is not true (remember Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act). They are not required by law to be truthful!
  • They know what will make you angry.
  • They have a strong financial incentive to make you angry.

So, with these things in mind, here are two words of advice for you the next time you’re sailing along through social media:

Watch out!

David Evans ©2020.