How the design of our social media networks games our systems of anger
It’s Donald Trump again. Or Chris Gayle. Flipping through the paper or scrolling down your news feed, a confronting headline about a celebrity drunk from booze or self-importance jumps at you off the page. As you skim the rest of the article feelings of disbelief and fury bubble up. Fuelled by communal indignation, the news spreads across your network, collecting comments of condemnation as more and more bewildered friends add their response. Sound familiar?
Anger is one of our most widely experienced emotions, but one of the least studied and understood. What neurologists do know is that it originates in the limbic system of the brain, the centre of other base emotions like fear and desire. Situated prior to the rational evaluator that is the frontal cortex, anger primes us to act first and think later. It has direct links to your adrenal ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. It also triggers the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. As such, dopamine is a key chemical in both sensations of enjoyment and mechanisms of addiction.
This bypass of the decision-making section of your brain makes your anger response one that can easily override inhibition, avoid rational consideration, and motivate action. Expert in outrage management Dr Peter Sandman states; “Extraordinary as it may seem... The evidence you quote in an effort to calm (the outraged’s) fears will actually increase his level of outrage, not diminish it.”1
Manipulating public anger is not a new trick. However, the rise in popularity of social media’s role in distributing news is. And the way these systems are designed causes the spread of a story to be strongly influenced by the strength of your response.
There’s a two pronged system at play that feeds on anger’s natural ability to motivate. Firstly, it’s so easy to respond to an infuriating article. With a single click or a few keystrokes, you’re able to like, comment, tag friends in or share the post. The lack of effort provides a very low barrier to action. Before social media, to react to something that infuriated you required finding someone to share your outrage, or considerable lung capacity if you wanted to scream the news across the office or down the street. Now, there’s no need to weigh up the pros and cons of an action. Just a twitch of the finger and the news is splashed across your friend’s social feeds.
The second mechanism is what we’ll call the content velocity. That is, the faster a piece of content on social media gathers reactions, the more highly it’s ranked on user news feeds. While Facebook, Reddit, and LinkedIn closely guard the mechanisms of their code, it’s evident that content with the greatest number of reactions garners a higher ranking in news feeds. It’s also evident that there’s a consideration of the time these reactions occur in. The phrase “social media ignited today” is not an idle metaphor. It describes quite literally the exponential growth of the backlash to a news story. The faster people click, the greater the reach, and the more eyes the story is placed in front of, asking for a reaction.
Take the recent controversy over the Australia Day lamb ad. After heavy-handed depictions of a SWAT officer setting a vegan’s bowl of kale on fire and potential culturally insensitive use of terms, the ad prompted serious backlash and coverage across the papers and online. In a week, it garnered 650 complaints to the Australian Ad Standards Bureau. In comparison, the ad for notorious infidelity enabler Ashely Madison received only 138. This article is not defending either ad – but pointing out that similar moral questionability of both pieces resulted in vastly disparate responses, in part due to the influence of the online sphere.
The virality of anger’s spread across social media is illustrated no better than in the story of Justine Sacco. Detailed by Jon Ronson in his book “So You’ve Been Publically Shamed”, Sacco, a former PR head, tweeted out to her 170 followers a joke in terrible taste before a holiday to Africa. Was the joke culturally insensitive or even racist? Most likely. Did it deserve to trend worldwide, provoking a storm of criticism that led to her sacking? Probably not. A joke in poor taste became fuel for anger for thousands of people, and even provided a gleefully engaged audience entertainment as they watched the outrage spread and cause her eventual downfall.
At it’s worst, outrage mongering can provoke violence on a large scale. In 2012, clips from an anti-Islamic movie called Innocence of Muslims were broadcast on Egyptian television networks. The resulting fury over the depiction of the prophet Mohammed in this US film led to riots and the murder of four consular staff when protestors stormed an embassy in Libya. Never mind that the movie had been funded by one prejudiced property developer, and screened only once publically, in one quiet movie theatre.
Outrage has its place as a motivational force to affect serious change. SeaWorld have ceased their program of killer whale performances after the damming documentary Blackfish gained international traction. Nike and Reebok now employ third party regulators to check and maintain ethical labour practices after public outcry. However, knee-jerk reactions to events prompted by manipulative coverage run the risk of taking scalps merely to satisfy our sense of righteousness, or fostering aggression instead of conversation as the dominant method of problem solving.
A simple fix for Facebook and company comes to mind. Add to the algorithm a measure of the emotional tone of the article and comments. Advances in affective computing mean programs exist which can detect the sentiment that phrases are written in.2 If the system detects excessive anger, the content could be penalised with a lowering of it’s ranking.
However, there’s a broader responsibility here; to news providers to deliver balanced, measured and objective coverage of events and the public response, and to readers to think carefully about their response to potentially outraging events. If that familiar, intoxicating blaze of righteousness starts to fire up in response to the latest headline, take a step back and assess your immediate reaction. Otherwise, you’re just providing fuel for the outrage machine.