Note: This post is also available on my website, where it will be periodically updated.
There is a whole science to manipulating our attention. And because there is a lot of money to be made by doing this well, it means we all encounter attempts to manipulate what we pay attention to each day. What is this, and how is it harmful? This post will be the first on a series on the topic.
Why is attention so important?
When people use Facebook, they use it for free. Facebook generally doesn’t even try to sell them anything, yet has billions in revenues. What, then, is Facebook’s product?
Well, really, it’s you. Or, more specifically, your attention. Facebook sells your attention to advertisers. Everything they do is in service to that. They want you to spend more time on the site so they can show you more ads.
(I should say here that I’m using Facebook as an example, but this applies to other social media companies too.)
Seeking to maximize attention
So if your attention is so important to their profit, it follows naturally that they would seek ways to get people to spend more time on their site. And they do. They track all sorts of metrics, including “engagement” (if you click “like”, comment, share, or otherwise interact with content). They know which sorts of things are likely to capture your (and I mean you in specific!) attention and show you that. Your neighbor may have different interests and Facebook judges different things are likely to capture their attention.
Manipulating your attention
Attention turning into money isn’t unique for social media. In fact, in the article If It Bleeds, It Leads: Understanding Fear-Based Media, Psychology Today writes:
In previous decades, the journalistic mission was to report the news as it actually happened, with fairness, balance, and integrity. However, capitalistic motives associated with journalism have forced much of today’s television news to look to the spectacular, the stirring, and the controversial as news stories. It’s no longer a race to break the story first or get the facts right. Instead, it’s to acquire good ratings in order to get advertisers, so that profits soar.
News programming uses a hierarchy of if it bleeds, it leads. Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer’s attention. In the news media, this is called the teaser. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story. If a teaser asks, “What’s in your tap water that YOU need to know about?” a viewer will likely tune in to get the up-to-date information to ensure safety.
You’ve probably seen fear-based messages a lot on Facebook. They will highlight messages to liberals about being afraid of what Trump is doing, and to conservatives about being afraid of what Biden is doing. They may or may not even intentionally be doing this; it is their algorithm predicts that those would maximize time and engagement for certain people, so that’s what they see.
Fear leads to controversy
It’s not just fear, though. Social media also loves controversy. There’s nothing that makes people really want to stay on Facebook like anger. See something controversial and you’ll see hundreds or thousands of people are there arguing about it — and in the process, giving Facebook their attention. A quick Internet search will show you numerous articles on how marketing companes can leverage controvery to get attention and engagement with their campaigns.
Consequences of maximizing fear and controversy
What does it mean to society at large — and to you personally — that large companies make a lot of money by maximizing fear and controversy?
The most obvious way is it leads to less common ground. If the posts and reactions that show common ground are never seen because they don’t drive engagement, it poisons the well; left and right hate each other with ever more vigor — a profitable outcome to Facebook, but a poisonous one to all of us.
I have had several friendships lost because I — a liberal in agreement with these friends on political matters — still talk to Trump voters. On the other side, we’ve seen people storm the Michigan statehouse with weapons. How did that level of disagreement — and even fear behind it — get so firmly embedded in our society? Surely the fact that social media shows us things designed to stimulate fear and anger must play a role.
What does it do to our ability to have empathy for, and understand, others? The Facebook groups I’ve been in for like-minded people have largely been flooded with memes calling the President “rump” and other things clearly designed to make people angry or fearful. It’s a worthless experience, and not just that, but it’s a harmful experience.
When our major media — TV and social networks — all are optimizing for fear, anger, and controvesry, we have a society beholden to fear, anger, and controvesy.
In my next installment, I’m going to talk about what to do about this, including the decentralized social networks of the Fediverse that are specifically designed to put you back in charge of your attention.
Update 2020-12-16: There are two followup articles for this: how to join the Fediverse and non-creepy technology purchasing and gifting guides. The latter references the FSF’s page on software manipulation towards addiction, which is particularly relevant to this topic.