Fear and Outrage For the Win!

Earlier this week, I had some thoughts on how all of that supposedly anonymous data could be put together to find out who you really are and track you, mostly in the name of advertising to you, but also for some other reasons.

One of those reasons has to do with the news media, or rather, how the news media plays the game in order to get your attention, so that their advertisers can advertise to you.

Today, I want to explore that some more, with the assistance of this article:

This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit

Now, I want you to go and read the entire article. There is so much in it that you need to know if you’re going to consume news online, especially if you’re trusting social media to keep you informed. But I want to highlight a few things that capture exactly what I was talking about earlier, and how all of these tools designed to help advertisers target us better, are creating a bunch of side-affects.

Every time you open your phone or your computer, your brain is walking onto a battleground. The aggressors are the architects of your digital world, and their weapons are the apps, news feeds, and notifications in your field of view every time you look at a screen.

They are all attempting to capture your most scarce resource — your attention — and take it hostage for money. Your captive attention is worth billions to them in advertising and subscription revenue.

Most importantly:

You will lose this battle. You have already. The average person loses it dozens of times per day.

All those online publishers can’t make any money from ads if they don’t get any visitors. Even little blogs like this one that aren’t in it for the advertising, can’t get your attention without playing the game, because the Facebook news feed isn’t designed to unearth great information, it’s designed to capture, and keep, your attention, and it knows you better than you know yourself.

Today the news needs to compete with everything else in our digital life — thousands of apps and millions of websites. More than anything, it now competes with Social Media — one of the most successful attention-capturing machines ever created.

Social Media is one of the primary reasons there has been a double-digit drop in newspaper revenues, and why journalism as an industry is in steep decline. It is now how a majority of Americans get news.

The biggest player in Social Media is Facebook, and the biggest part of Facebook is the News Feed.

OK, so the news media, including the biggest players in news, have to play the game to some degree too because we are now reliant on social media to get our news. Even a major media outlet needs to get their stuff on social media, and get engagement there in order to get people to their website, which is how they make advertising dollars. OK, so what’s the problem with trying to get social engagement?

Nothing, really. Most of us using social media are trying to attract other people, and engage with them in one way or another. The problem is that journalism is now competing with all of these other brands to capture attention, and to do that, they must stoop to doing whatever it takes.

By traditional journalistic standards, however, the News Feed Editor is a very, very bad editor. It doesn’t differentiate between factual information and things that merely look like facts (as we saw with the massive explosion of viral hoaxes during the 2016 election). It doesn’t identify content that is profoundly biased, or stories that are designed to propagate fear, mistrust, or outrage.

The News Feed Editor has literally changed the way news is written. It has become the number one driver of traffic to news sites globally, and that has shifted the behavior of content creators. To get a story picked up by the News Feed Editor, news producers (and human editors) have changed their strategies to stay relevant and stem losses. To do this, many news organizations have adopted a traffic-at-all-costs mentality, pushing for more engagement at the expense of what we would traditionally call editorial accuracy.

At this point, the article gives a few excellent examples of how headlines are written in a way to not only get your attention, but get you to have an emotional response to them, like fear and outrage, because the one thing we also know is that people often only read headlines without reading the article, and react accordingly, especially by sharing! Media outlets love sharing. We all love it when people share our stuff, but they really love it because, again, the wider it gets spread around, the more people will click through and the more ads they can display!

We used to call this “click-bait”, but truthfully, in 2017, it’s all click-bait.

You can quickly see how these strategies can be used to turn content hyper-partisan, divisive and/or outrageous. As the former head of content at a major millennial-focused publisher recently told me, “It’s not our job to challenge political opinions. It’s our job to ride your politics as far as we can.”

That quote is fairly shocking for those of us who grew up believing that the “news” was about just exposing, and telling, the truth, even if we always were naive about that. In 2017, it’s not. It’s simply trying to get your attention the same way a site like the Onion is. It’s not about telling the truth, it’s about getting attention.

The article then goes on to cite some excellent examples of how media coverage tends to generate fear in society, and how that same coverage was probably manipulated during the 2016 election, because the more outrageous a candidate got, the more coverage he got! Seriously, go read it.

In my mind, nothing more clearly shows you how this is being used than the articles that appear online after any news story that do nothing but highlight the most outrageous things someone has said on Twitter or Facebook about it, because it’s not hard to find something outrageous on Twitter, and the article only serves to outrage the people reading it, and to leave them assuming that view is representative of “the other side”. Those kinds of articles are all over the place, and do nothing to inform anyone. They do not share any new information about an event, they do not seek to understand the different thought processes and belief systems that create different opinions on issues, they seek to inflame. Period. Because outraged readers are good for engagement!

We live surrounded by propaganda, all the time.

Recently, I saw someone online say this about the events in Charlottesville earlier this year. (paraphrasing)

“I’ve traveled all over the country, and nowhere looks like Charlottesville looks on TV, including Charlottesville”

It was something I could identify with because as many of you know, I used to travel not only around the US, but around the world, and nowhere ever looked like it did in the media. London isn’t filled with ISIS terrorists driving over people every day, I did not have to duck gunfire in Chicago. Sydney is not filled with drunken punters. Germany was not overrun by roving gangs of immigrants. New Orleans is not underwater, and the vast majority of people all over the world are not on Twitter arguing politics and trolling each other. When we get our news from social media, it’s easy to think that the outrageous story is the “truth” instead of the outlier.. That causes us to fear things that are very unlikely to happen, and to take strong stances on things that are not actually an issue beyond the few outliers. That’s not to say those things never happen, clearly they do, but our assessment of how much of a risk they are is completely out of whack. We fear the things we hear about the most. Like how we “see” way more Subaru cars right after buying one ourselves. We see racist intent more after reading over and over about how much racism there is, we fear terrorism the more articles about terrorism we read, we think everyone in the country is completely divided and ready to go to war with each other because that’s what we see on Twitter, and we feel like the world is a more dangerous place than it’s ever been because every bad thing is splayed all over our social media feeds, begging for our attention.

Yet, statistically, just like there wasn’t a sudden increase in Subarus on the road after we bought one, none of those other things are the truth either. But they sure get your attention, and there sure are a lot of groups looking to make money off of our fear and outrage. Advertisers love it when we get outraged and click through and share websites. Political fundraisers love it too. There’s nothing like some good scaremongering to help raise some money for the cause. You’ll never see a fundraising pitch that talks about a political disagreement, no it’s always a “fight”, a “threat”, if not a downright “war”.

Come to think of it, I see those words quite often on Facebook too, about things that are not, in fact, a war, but simple policy disagreements. But there’s no outrage over simple disagreements, so we use more “descriptive” terms in order to get attention and to provoke an emotional response, a donation, a share, a link, etc.

In closing, I’ll say it again. We are surrounded by propaganda, and very little truth. Remember that before you jump to fear and outrage. We’d also do well to remember that the algorithms used to hijack our attention do what they do because it works. Understand that we’ve done this to ourselves, by clicking and reacting to the most outrageous stuff, by believing the worst about people we disagree with, by dehumanizing each other into group stereotypes, and by choosing to let social media be our sole source of information, instead of getting out and talking to real people individually.

You might just find out that people are more than you think, and the world is full of them.

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