How Social Networks Profit Off of Pain, Fear and Harm

Ed Zitron 8 min read
How Social Networks Profit Off of Pain, Fear and Harm

In my column yesterday I wrote about how newsrooms cave to bad faith harassment campaigns, and touched upon how these campaigns also overwhelmingly target women and people of color. It’s all part of the design - these are pro-hegemonic, anti-equality campaigns engineered by and empowered by the rich and powerful, and can (and will) be used to target not simply those who cover political targets, but also those who cover huge enterprises like Amazon and Tesla. Their goal is obvious to intimidate and harm the person in question - the reporter - but also to send a message to the newsroom and other reporters (or even future reporters) that covering them in a negative way will have direct and painful consequences.

A core problem is that the networks where many of these campaigns are executed - Twitter and Facebook - don’t simply enable but actively profit from these propaganda campaigns. Facebook’s top-performing links regularly feature the likes of Ben Shapiro  Dan Bongino and Franklin Graham, who a day ago published something that started with “America is under attack from within. Godless socialism and communism are threatening our very way of life in this country and the inroads already made are shocking.” These peddlers of alarmism and division enrich themselves and Facebook by actively targeting the issues and the specific people involved in them, but doing just enough to be considered respectable and raise the defense of “freedom of speech.”

Facebook’s number one goal with everything is to keep you on the site or app as much as possible, and it should very much bother them that these are the top-performing links. It certainly doesn’t seem to, though - they argued that the Top 10 lists (pulled together by reported Kevin Roose) “don’t tell the full story,” and that it’s more accurate to look at a company called Crowdtangle’s info (the same one that provides Roose’s top 10) because, I assume, it shows that Facebook isn’t profiting off of ultra-conservative demagogues. Funnily enough they did a post last November, which breaks down a little further things like “reach” (as in the % of US Facebook users reached) that show a more “balanced” picture of things.

Which…does not really explain anything, nor does it explain how these pages so regularly get the kind of engagement they do. The opaqueness of Facebook’s algorithm is the subject of much discussion, but the overall point that I’m making is that these are outlets and individuals that profit on shareable, linkable snippets of impending doom and suffering. They warn of a “chilling threat to red states,” or how “Biden’s Response to Putin at G7 is So Bad That It Actually Scares [them].” ForAmerica, a regular top performer, posted a video about bikers stopping for lemonade that “the media rarely shows you.” On their own, these aren’t harmful, but the consistent micro-divisions that these people sow, injected and shared into people’s personal feeds, create the anxiety and fear that turns people toward ring wing ideals. It is the very definition of propaganda - misleading, emotionally-driven takes that push people toward fearing their neighbor and the unknown.

This is why I’ve previously disliked the term “disinformation,” preferring “misinformation.” Where previously some have used outright lies (which have got them eventually banned from social networks), the thin veil of “just asking the questions” or “just stating an opinion” allows the spread of information that sucks, that has a naked agenda, that exists not to inform but to agitate. They carefully walk a specific line to avoid being named disinformation sources, by cherry-picking sources, adding their own opinions and views to layer inflammatory dogma on top of what they’re sharing. And they know that to actually ban these outlets - to slow their pace or stop them entirely - would seemingly be against the idea that these networks are pro free-speech, using the same anxiety that causes newsrooms to cave to right wing mobs against social networks.

And, speaking from my opinion here, the social networks don’t really want to stop it, because it’s more traffic, keeping more people on their app so that they can sell more ads. The speed at which information (misinformation and disinformation) spreads around Twitter, for example, is so volatile that people can get accused of things that did not happen and be crucified before anyone does a single bit of research - and that’s just based on someone taking one screenshot and running with it. Organized, carefully-crafted propaganda from the likes of Dan Bongino is purpose made to appear to be well-researched and thus shareable without worries that it’ll be totally incorrect, and thus moves at an even faster speed, without the worry that those sharing it and consuming it will be interested in being corrected or informed if it matches with their biases.

The solution is for these social networks to actually realize the damage that these people do - the agendas they serve, the cruelty they peddle in, the division they sow. I nearly wrote a paragraph saying “sometimes the left and center left do something like this,” but it is so egregiously skewed toward the right wing because, well, their causes are that much more vile, and anger and fear are that much easier to stoke. Anger and fear are motivational forces, and the conservative media peddles in them.

This is also why these groups are so effective at creating the online propaganda harassment campaigns. They play on the anger and fear of people that see their way of life changing, and give them exactly the proof they need that everything they know is at risk. They then provide a convenient target at the speed of Tweets and knowingly, after setting up the thing to be mad at, set up the person to be mad at too. Misinformation doesn’t exist to tell people lies - it exists to confirm the biases that they already have with a carefully-trimmed truth.

The truth is that the only actual solution to bullshit like this is to slow it down or eliminate it entirely. There will always be media bias, but there comes a time when these networks need to be able to analyze content that isn’t an outright lie and still reconcile it as dangerous. The right wing types are well aware of the line they skirt, as its built in defense against deplatforming is that it’d be a suppression of free speech to not let them post that the left is coming to destroy everything you love, because they provided “sources.” There is of course the philosophical definition of “the line,” and the right wing demagogues are ready and willing to yell that “this never happens to the left,” despite left and center media rarely operating at the scale and in the form that the right wing does. And because they know these networks are so self-conscious about their impartiality, they’ll keep doing what they’re doing.

The solution is difficult, because there is an understandable fear of censorship in any source of media. That being said, perhaps these platforms should seek to be less-willing participants in spreading the kind of misinformation that the Bonginos of the world use. Despite having a clear agenda and propaganda-like mechanisms, “public figures” and “non-profit groups” are framed by these networks as similarly-worthy sources of information as, say, a New York Times or Washington Post. So why house them? Why give them the ability to broadcast and comment when they themselves have such a blatantly obvious agenda, a clear intent to cause people to be angry at and scared of each other?

What it comes down to is the veracity of information itself, and its ability to be disseminated and shared. It isn’t even about monetization - demonetizing them doesn’t stop them - it’s about stopping the speed at which someone spreads information if they’re continually proved to be doing so in bad faith. Dan Bongino, someone who has been proven to happily spread disinformation and misinformation around the election, is allowed to send whatever he wants to 4 million people - a good start would be Facebook not allowing him to use them as a means to disseminate and organize his content on a neat little page that sure looks and sounds like a reliable journalistic source. Perhaps the solution is for Bongino to not be able to directly feed information into people’s newsfeeds, and not be able to put his weird videos of him yelling  on there.

Sources like these that are positioning themselves as journalists, and should be treated as such. If they want to be able to disseminate information on social networks, they have to be willing to do so in a way that is actually seeking to be objective. If they choose not to, their ability to position themselves as a news outlet, with the ability to have a page where they can post their videos and house their content, should be removed. If they continually post things that are bad faith attempts to manipulate and antagonize their audience, said posts should be treated as some form of spam, limited in their reach and how they index on Twitter or Facebook.

There is an argument that this is a slippery slope and censorship, to which I say that there are tons of places (Substack and their own websites included) that they can happily spread their bullshit on.

Facebook and Twitter need to decide what exactly their networks are - are they meant to be places that people communicate? Are they meant to be places that people get their information from? If they’re meant to be places that people get their information from, should they not treat how that information is displayed and consumed similarly to a Google or Bing search?

It’s a definitional issue. They both want to be seen as both communication tools and sources of information, but seem hesitant to actually define themselves by the latter. If they are simple communication tools and not sources of information, they shouldn’t have feeds - these feeds are not ways to communicate, they are ways to consume.

The truth is that they are, deliberately or otherwise, the ways in which people consume information, and thus they are complicit in any misinformation or disinformation on their platform and should be terrified not of failing to be objective place for communication, but of being a corrupt source of information. People should be able to find these things if they’d like, but the platform should not be so actively accepting of spreading information with such clear-set agendas without framing it as such.

These platforms both need to stop being such willing hosts of this information and understand how they are used to spread fear and harm. If it’s not entirely removing them, it’s limiting their ability to spread the information themselves - not giving them such an easy platform to enrage and upset. That means not offering their posts up as the first results in searches, not giving them a platform to disseminate on, and treating them not as reporters, but as propagandists.

The approach to these sources of information is one that is absolutely going to cause problems. Where is the line between Ben Shapiro’s opinion and the harm he creates? What satisfactorily separates a biased Dan Bongino story from a Fox News one, especially in cases like below?

Do we consider sources on the left or center to be harmful? Why do we do so? What is perfect objectivity?

It ultimately comes down to how the network is used and by whom, and how the network offers up content versus how the user finds it. If we are not in the business of deplatforming people for misinformation - which I acknowledge is difficult to get right - then they simply have to truly be objective, which means that they must serve up results in searches and algorithmically-offered content that is as objective as possible. It also likely requires Facebook and Twitter to invest significantly more resources into evaluating the top traffic on their networks, and the mechanisms through which that content is delivered. Ultimately we have to ask what we want from these networks - do we want them to be places that this kind of information travels? Does political opinion that’s specifically built to piss people off need a home on social networks, or is the network largely better off without it?

There is an unquestionable harm caused by the use of social networks to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt. There is no need to censor - there is only the need to moderate in such a way that making a business based on scaring people using your network isn’t cheap or easy. Not dealing with the fact that your top traffic sources are effectively propaganda because you’re scared of “free speech” is a punt - it acts as if Facebook is a utility that has no benefit from his use of the platform.

In reality, these networks do not see the spread of misinformation and misery as their responsibility, despite creating the mechanisms through which it travels and actively profiting as a result. They are tacitly making a statement that they give more of a shit about money than they do about the harm they do to society, and that…is an incredibly depressing thing to consider.

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