Your fear and outrage are sold for profit. How one indicator changed the way we see the world
On an evening in late October 2014, a doctor checked his heart rate and walked into a subway car in New York City. He had just returned home from a brief volunteer assignment abroad and was driving to Brooklyn to meet friends at a bowling alley. He couldn't wait for this break – earlier that day he went for a jog around town, drank coffee on the High Line and ate meatballs at a local store. When he woke up the next day exhausted from a slight fever, he called his employer.
In the next 24 hours, this doctor will become the man most feared in New York City. His exact route through the city will be investigated by hundreds of people, the facilities he visits will be closed, and his friends and fiancée will be quarantined.
Dr. Craig Spencer contracted the Ebola virus while treating patients in Guinea as part of a Doctors Without Borders program. It hit quarantine well before it could start infecting. He followed strict protocol in reporting his symptoms and was not a danger to anyone around him when in public places. He was a model patient – as experts were quick to report.
That hasn't stopped the explosion in the media announcing the coming apocalypse. A frenzy of clickbait and scare narratives emerged as every major media outlet entered the race to capitalize on the collective panic over the Ebola virus.
The physical damage caused by the disease itself was minor. But the hysteria – moving rapidly across the Internet – closed schools, disabled flights and terrified the entire nation.
Social media exploded around this topic, reaching 6,000 tweets per second and leaving the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and public health professionals trying to curb the misinformation spreading in all directions. Fear has traveled as widely as the stories that describe it. The emotional response – and associated media – generated billions of impressions for the companies that wrote about it.
Those billions translated directly into ad revenue. By the time the hysteria was over, companies had bought or sold millions of dollars worth of advertising space associated with media covering the virus. All with the help of algorithms.
Panic was far more contagious than the virus itself and had the perfect network to spread – a digital ecosystem built to spread emotional fear around the world.
I'm going to tell you a few things that you've probably already ż you know
Every time you open your phone or computer, your brain enters the battlefield. The architects of your digital world are the aggressors, and their weapons are the apps, news feeds and notifications in your field of vision every time you look at a screen.
Everyone is trying to acquire 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.
To do this, they need to map the defensive lines of your brain – your willpower and desire to focus on other tasks – and figure out how to get through them.
You will lose this battle. You've already done it. The average person loses it dozens of times a day
This may sound familiar: in a moment of inactivity, you open your phone to check the time. 19 minutes later, you recover in a completely random corner of your digital world: a stranger's feed, a surprising article, a funny YouTube clip. You didn't mean to do it. What just happened?
It's not your fault – it's intentional
The digital rabbit hole you've just fallen into is funded by ads targeting you. Almost every "free" app or service you use relies on this hidden process of turning your eyes into money. The methods of this conversion are sophisticated and reliable. You don't pay money to use these platforms, but don't delude yourself, you pay for them – with your time, attention, and perspective.
It's not some minor, technical change in the kinds of information you consume, the ads you see, or the apps you download.
It has realistically changed the way you see the world.
The war for your ą comments ę
Before I go any further, let me assure you that this is not a list of grievances about bad technology. I'm not a Luddite. Like most of humanity, I greatly value my devices as helpful prostheses of my memory, my productivity, and my ability to connect with the people I care about.
Rather, it's a sober assessment of how digital strategies for grabbing our attention have transformed us – our lives, our media and our worldview. These incremental changes have led to a massive reshuffling of our politics, our worldviews, and our ability to see others as fellow human beings.
Many of the biggest problems we face as a society right now stem from decisions made by the hidden creators of our digital world – the designers, programmers and editors who create and manage the media we consume.
These decisions are not made because of bad intentions. They arise behind analytics dashboards, A/B testing panels and walls of code that have turned you into a predictable resource – a user whose attention can be exploited.
They do this by focusing on a single oversimplified indicator that supports the advertising industry as its primary source of revenue. This indicator is called engagement, and increasing its importance – above all others – subtly and consistently changes the way we look at news, politics, and each other.
Here's a closer look at how the main artery of our actual information – News – has been fundamentally transformed through these methods.
Like? Let's look at the recent past.
The story is known ś ci
"Media" as we know it is not that old. For most of our history, news simply meant new things that people heard and shared, limited by physical distance and oral transmission. Since the invention of the printing press, news has consisted of memos posted in public places and pamphlets distributed to the small number of people able to read them.
Between the 18th and 19th centuries, newspapers became fairly common, but they were mostly opinionated tabloids containing political essays, sensational stories, or pulling dirt. They've been megaphones for people to exert political influence, and many of them have an extremely loose connection to facts.
"Atrocity propaganda" from World War I and an image showing a German soldier executing a Belgian nurse. Source
In the run-up to World War I, unchecked propaganda from all sides reached a zenith in the news, with everyone involved in the conflict engaged in a massive battle for public opinion. By the end of the war, it became clear that information warfare was a powerful weapon – it could create armies, incite collective aggression, and destabilize entire nations.
In response to this systematic manipulation of the truth, there was a concerted effort to create the institution of fact-based journalism in the 1920s. This process began with the emergence of the first mass media communication networks: national radio and newspapers. These slowly gave way to television, and the combination of these three new platforms produced a global media system – driven by the principles of journalism.
News still had competitors in the battle for attention, so it continued to flirt with hyperbole. The drive to sell (newspapers, ads, products) is to some extent naturally at odds with the idea of editorial accuracy and balanced reporting based on facts. Journalistic standards, libel laws and industry criticism became common mechanisms to help stop this pursuit of sensationalism.
But something happened recently as news hit the Internet and started moving into our pockets: they started losing the battle for our attention.
The rise of engagement ż of the algorithmic
Today, news has to compete with everything else in our digital lives – thousands of apps and millions of websites. Above all, they now compete with social media – one of the most successful attention machines ever created.
Social media is one of the main reasons for the double-digit decline in newspaper revenues, and why journalism as an industry is shrinking rapidly. This is now the way most Americans get news.
The biggest player in social media is Facebook, and the biggest part of Facebook is News
The News Algorithm is regularly modified and historically opaque – one of the most meaningful and influential pieces of code ever written. You can think of the algorithm as the News Editor. (Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube have their own editorial algorithms, but we focus here on Facebook because of its dominance).
The News Editor is a robot editor and is much better at attracting attention than human editors. She can predict what you'll click on better than anyone you know. Northwestern University's Pablo Boczkowski called "the best editor in human history".
News Editor shows you stories, tracks your reactions and filters out the ones you're unlikely to respond to. It tracks the videos you watch, the images you hover over, and every link you click. Maps your brain, looking for patterns of engagement.
Uses this map to create a private, personal media stream just for you. In doing so, he essentially became the editor-in-chief of a personalized newspaper that 2 billion people read every month.
But by traditional journalistic standards, the News Editor is a very, very bad editor. It doesn't differentiate between actual information and things that just look like facts (as we saw during the massive viral explosion of fake news during the 2016 US election). Not identify content that is highly biased or stories that are designed to spread fear, distrust or outrage.
The News Editor has literally changed the way news is written. It has become the world's number one destination for redirecting traffic to news sites , and this has changed the behavior of content creators. To get an article noticed by a News Editor, news producers (and human editors) have changed their strategies to stay relevant and stop losses. To do this, many news production organizations have adopted a "traffic at any cost" mentality, seeking to gain more engagement at the expense of what we traditionally call editorial accuracy.
This is the reason why a lot of the news you see today starts with exaggerated, dramatic, attention-grabbing statements – they're trying to get you engaged and rise above the competition. This is the "behind the scenes news" of the news industry. They are losing the battle for attention and have become desperate.
Hacking your attention with help ą emotional packaging
Emotional reactions are one of the most important ways to judge the value of a post and the easiest way for a News Editor to map, measure and deliver more of the same. It's an emotional takeover – based on emotional engagement.
Updates tend to prioritize content with this emotional hacking – leading to more clicks, likes, shares and comments. While content producers compete for this kind of emotional engagement, this battle for attention creates what technology ethicist Tristan Harris has called "a race to the bottom of the brain stem".
A huge part of this is overly sensational headlines. These news stories have better "traction" and gain more approval from the News Editor. They spread faster and generate more traffic than their less hyperbolic counterparts.
A sample of the best performing word sets from a recent study of 100 million headlines includes:
Tears of joy
She will move you
He evokes goosebumps
Shocked to see this
It's called "Headline Packaging". It's the way messages are put into context, or packaged, to gain more clicks. The person who writes the headline is rarely the author of the story itself.
As Fusion editor Felix Salmon recently wrote , "The time and effort put into packaging a story can far exceed the time and effort put into writing it itself.".
Packaging is done through A/B testing, which is a way to "hack" more traffic. By testing dozens of different headlines and seeing which ones get the most clicks, the process of writing a headline can be boiled down to a game. Its purpose? Attract as much attention as possible.
There are powerful tools to create this packaging, and both Facebook and Twitter encourage you to do it – they call it optimization. With these tools and a little creativity, an actual story can become provocative or sensational, simply depending on how the headline is written.
The problem is that most who see these social media posts don't actually click through to read the articles themselves. For many users, the headline itself becomes the story, even if it doesn't resemble the original, actual event.
It's easy to see how these strategies can be used to turn content into highly biased, socially divisive and/or outrageous. As a former head of content at a major publishing house with a target audience in the millennial generation recently told me: "It's not our job to challenge political opinion. Our job is to push your views as far as they can go".
How it changes us
When things perceived as a threat ż enia staj ą si ę "reality ś those ą "
Engagement optimization has distorted our perception of threats at a very high level.
For most of our species' history, the information available has been really helpful to our survival. If you've heard many stories about wild dog attacks, you've learned to be wary of wild dogs.
This stems from something in human nature called accessibility heuristics. It's a shortcut for our brains to make us believe: "If something comes easily to mind, it must be true.".
Because available information has been our best indicator of probability, our brains have evolved this system to help us understand what to expect from the world around us. This became especially clear in the case of threats because the benefits of fearing things that might kill us far outweighed the costs (for our ancestors, dying was far worse than being overly cautious).
Today, however, the information available about threats does not reflect reality at all – it is primarily a reflection of the media we consume.
Let's look at the crime rate in the US:
Regardless of the dramatic drop in crime over the past 30 years, more than half of the population believes crime is worse than in previous years.
Media (now social media) is a major component of the assumptions that shape our perspective. The focus on crime in reportage not only changes our view of crime in general – it makes us feel far more threatened than we should be.
For most of us, perceived things are reality. When we see the world as a dangerous place, it changes our behavior and attitudes, regardless of the actual threat.
How our media system fuels our fears
A critical example of this is terrorism, which seems more present today than at any time in modern history. Reading the front page of any major newspaper suggests that this is one of the leading causes of death in the world.
Yet terrorism-related homicides are a small fraction of the overall homicide rate, especially in the United States. There is a profound asymmetry in the relationship between terrorist attacks and other types of homicide, as illustrated by a sample of front-page articles collected from the New York Times over the past 2 years.
Source: Priceonomics / Nemil Dalal . The graph shows data and stories defined as "Islamic terror" compared to the overall number of homicide deaths. Note that terrorist attacks by non-Muslims are still not listed as terrorism by news outlets in initial materials.
Terrorism is a powerful emotional event. One that seems to attack the very foundations of civil society and human dignity. There are many legitimate reasons why we might be disgusted by such attacks and want to describe and publicly discuss them.
And yet the inconvenient truth about the presence of terrorism in our lives is that we have built a system of instant distribution that is consistent with its real purpose – terror.
The fear of it far outweighs the likelihood that it will happen to us or anyone we know. Worse, the excessive coverage of these attacks is often exactly the outcome desired by those who commit them.
The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) benefited from this hyperbolic media ecosystem during its rapid rise to prominence in just three short years, beginning in 2014. Understanding that they were fighting a battle for attention, they prioritized their brand as much as their military efforts, building a media wing to push boundaries and exaggerate their actions as winning, lasting and growing . This attempt to dominate the media narrative through horrific acts made them a major threat to the Western world, despite the fact that they had a fairly small standing army, limited resources, and almost no international support.
Media coverage has allowed ISIS to use its narrative to recruit fighters from around the world to both Syria and Iraq, and to inspire attacks from disgruntled individuals who have no formal ties to the actual organization.
ISIS and similar entities know they are vying for attention and have learned to play the game. The sad truth is that a terrorist attack, a horrific massacre, or even a normal threat – any of these will bring real profits to the media company.
The media has become a spotlight to illuminate these individual stories, casting a huge shadow that is far more frightening than the actual events.
How our media fueled ą outrage and change ą politician ę
The same dynamic is playing out in the political arena. During the 2016 election cycle, CNN made more than $1 billion more in gross profit than the previous year, driven largely by ads attached to news stories about the most outrageous candidate: Donald Trump.
This was not the first time Trump has explored the possibility of running for president. In 1987, 2000, 2004 and 2011, he publicly considered running for the nation's highest office. In 1999, he officially entered the race as the Reform Party candidate, testing his platform and gauging reactions, but ultimately deciding that he could not get the endorsements necessary to win. After the failed 1999 race, Newsweek noted that there simply wasn't enough anger in the country to propel an independent candidate to victory.
Its tone hasn't changed much over the past three decades. What looked different in those earlier years? One key difference was this: the media was not optimized for the outrage necessary to provide media publicity for a candidate like Trump.
This was the mechanism that defined the 2016 campaign: the more outrageous the words, the more publicity it achieved. The more publicity he achieved, the more profitable his candidacy became. Analyst firm Mediaquant estimated that between October 2015 and November 2016, Trump received $5.6 billion in "free" media as part of this strategy , three times more than his biggest rival.
A snapshot of media coverage of the primary season, March 14-23, 2016., Source: Ev Boyle/USC Annenberg
Having media platforms is a huge advantage in politics. In any election, one of the main challenges is to rise above the competition and be noticed.
These stories about the candidates traveled faster and further on social media than anywhere else. Facebook and Twitter – like CNN – saw huge increases in traffic and revenue thanks to sensational news spread across their platforms and focused attention on them.
Trump's ideology, attitude and statements were based on fear of global threats. The legitimacy of its candidacy depended in part on the perception that many of these threats were real.
They democratized for profit ś us propaganda ę
It is impossible to look at the media system as something separate from functioning democracies. News always influences our opinions, and our voting decisions reflect that knowledge. If we look at society as a large collective human organism, the news media are something like a central nervous system. They help us respond to threats, share information, and determine what needs to be fixed.
How this nervous system is controlled and what influences it hugely determines how society works – what we care about, who we protect, who we fight. Throughout the 20th century, politicians, magnates and academics understood the value of this influence. It had a name: propaganda.
Propaganda required money, talent, and infrastructure to create and distribute. It has been an expensive and blunt instrument for top-down control.
Today we have democratized propaganda – anyone can use these strategies to capture attention and promote a misleading narrative, hyperbolic story, or outrage-inducing ideology – as long as it attracts attention and profits advertisers.
Journalism – the historical opponent of propaganda – has become the biggest casualty in this algorithmic war for our attention. And without it, we are seeing the breakdown of a measurable, shared reality.
It's not going away
In many ways, these algorithms are a reflection of ourselves. They map natural human behavior and tendencies – what we click on, what outrages us, what we love. They are part of us. But these maps contain some of our worst biases, irrational fears and bad habits. We need to design these algorithms to accommodate them.
We have inadvertently created a media system that monetizes many of our flaws. It won't go away – we can't just put it back in the box.
Knowing how to reliably take over the human brain to gain attention is one of the most important new trends of the 21st century. This discovery, like every large-scale invention in our history, has unexpected consequences that are difficult to predict.
If we want to continue to live in a shared reality, we must be willing to look at these effects with a sober eye. Addressing our most important issues as a species – from climate change to pandemics to poverty – requires us to have a shared narrative about the real problems we face: real threats. Actual reasons for outrage.
Without it, we undermine our greatest strength – our unique ability to collaborate and share the urgent and important burdens of being human.
Some thoughts ś le ń on solving ą behind ń
For some time now, there have been more than can fit here. News Editor or other such entities are still in their infancy. As we learn more about how these tools of algorithmic engagement distort our reality, we find that no single company is to blame. Google, Apple, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook and literally every major media provider are all players in this arms race to get our attention.
The holders of these tools have enormous influence: on the media, on our lives, and ultimately on a piece of the collective psyche of humanity. This impact we need to understand – and discuss – as we move into the future with great uncertainty.