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If you have spent at least 15 minutes on social media today, then the chances are quite high that you’ve been triggered at least once. You’ve probably liked, shared or commented on some piece of content that made you feel some mix of very strong emotions. Perhaps fear, perhaps outrage. And that’s not a coincidence, either. The big social media giants have turned their news feed algorithms into sophisticated observers of the human brain. By studying what types of content you have clicked on in the past, by understanding what types of content generate certain types of emotions, and by analyzing what content gets shared and passed around, these algorithms can ensure that they fill your news feeds with sensationalized, over-the-top headlines that grab your attention and lure you into clicking on content.
Fear and loathing on social media
To see how all this plays out, look no further than what’s happening in the political realm today. Nobody clicks on boring, well researched and factual political stories any more – you know, the kinds that you used to find in respectable newspapers. Instead, people click on sensationalized, over-the-top stories in which (insert name of your favorite political villain) seems to be doing something terrible or jaw-dropping that threatens to end the world as you know it. So what do the algorithms prioritize? Yes, that’s right – lots of sensationalized, over-the-top content that is engineered to make your blood boil. (“You won’t believe what Trump did today!”)
The word “engineered” is not a mistake here – the news feed algorithms literally have the ability to become the perfect social engineers. With a few tweaks here and there, they might be able to transform the annual influenza outbreak into a global, world-ending pandemic that threatens to end human life as we know it. Or, they might be able to inspire protest rallies and demonstrations around the nation by bringing race into the equation. Heck, they might even be able to convince you to take over a few neighborhood blocks and proclaim it a new autonomous zone with a trendy name like CHAZ or CHOP. What better way to trigger you and get you clicking than to see America in a massive convulsion? And, finally, a news feed algorithm cranked all the way up to 11 might be enough to convince you to vote for a certain political candidate for the highest office in the land, simply by manipulating the feelings and emotions in the deepest, darkest regions of your brain.
The impact of news feed algorithms gone wild
So you can see why the act of selling fear and outrage for profit (i.e. advertising dollars) is so dangerous. It literally has the ability to destabilize entire societies and to transform normal, everyday citizens into walking time bombs of rage, anger and fear. The important point to keep in mind here is that the algorithms are only concerned with one factor – engagement. Everything else – such as journalistic integrity or truth – is really just secondary (if it’s even considered at all). If you are clicking, sharing and liking, then that is all that matters to an impersonal social media bot.
The really scary part here is that the big social media platforms will continue to turn over more and more power to the algorithms as long as they continue to make money from it. Now that they are embracing artificial intelligence (AI) as part of their algorithms, it’s presumable that these algorithms will get better and better at predicting what will make us click, and why. And that’s when they’ll really be able to break through the defenses of human willpower, and force us to click for hours at a time on story after story, much like a lab rat in a cage clicking on a lever for an hourly dopamine boost.