How to fight against social media algorithms
I was incensed. The guardian had once again used its position and voice to push transphobic positions. This is sadly a long-standing editorial problem documented and explored much better In this article by Jules Joan Gleason. My instinctive reaction was to go to social media and voice my concerns. To ensure this didn’t go unchallenged. To point out everything wrong with the opinion piece. Except, well, except that’s probably why they published such an article. Rage bating. Outrage clicks. Controversy drives engagement.
This is far from a new trick. Tabloids and news outlets in the UK have used moral outrages to fuel sales for decades, Fear and anger are the easiest route to sales. However, the attention-based economy of the web has super charged this tactic. In a time when ad-blockers and algorithmic bubbles make it hard to reach people, outrage and anger in the public sphere can give you far reaching word of mouth that bypasses those barriers. It is worth noting that even linking or quote-tweeting an item to decry it, still gives it the reach and exposure it desires.
The instinctual reaction to get angry when we perceive injustice is a very noble and human thing. You see something wrong and you want to challenge it. The trouble is the current digital space breaks that. You are bombarded with information and visuals of injustice, yet there is very little you can do for events happening far out of your reach. You’re left with the same understandable anger and frustration but no useful channel for it. Social media loves this because people then vent this rage and frustration on their platform, giving them the all-prized ‘engagement’
Whether you share something to applaud or decry it, the algorithms don't care about that context. It just sees something that drives engagement and promotes it. And negative exposure still gets sales. Companies who have been at the center of controversies find that their sales ultimately are boosted in the long run. Anything that lets a brand occupy a person’s psyche helps to promote it. This has caused a worrying trend of brands deliberately causing controversy for this reason.
Youtuber essayists Hbomber and Peter Coffin have both explored this phenomenon. And I highly recommend checking out their videos and their deeper dives into this trend:
This presents a problem. I would say from experience the classic tactic of ‘ignore the Trolls’ just doesn’t work, because it allows them domination of the space. If you’re letting the spread of harmful rhetoric and propaganda go unchallenged it just builds momentum. However if you engage in direct rebuttal it feeds the outrage marketing machine. It’s a catch 22.
I have been thinking a lot about possible solutions to this dilemma and whilst none are fully satisfactory, the one I think will have the most legs is a strategy of ‘counter-promotion’.
The crux of it is this: if there is something going around or gaining traction, or even something you feel should be rebutted but you don’t wish to give it the the oxygen of attention, make a point to post and promote content that promotes values counter to it.
To give an example, at the start of this article, you may have noticed I didn’t link or even name of the particular article The Guardian published, I Instead put the focus on promoting an article that thoroughly explores the issue highlighting the systemic transphobia at play.
The basic idea is all the energy and attention the outrage would have given to the inciting event/article/video is instead poured into the countering narrative raising awareness about alternatives and solutions. It Games the algorithm that normally powers the outrage feedback loop into promoting something positive instead. And the best part is it satisfies that gut reaction to fight the injustice. I have found, in myself, a greater satiation in needing to correct the injustice using this strategy, instead of simply voicing my anger in pure reaction.
It is far from a silver bullet. It won’t be appropriate for every situation. There is the question as to what degree do you refuse to acknowledged the inciting item? I find it helps to allude to the original item if it has already gained some traction, otherwise it might be better to just try and post it independently as not to give people trying to start the outrage any oxygen and make it a dud. There is no easy answer and no sure-fire way. this will not work every-time, but it’s important to pause and consider the nextime your tempted to pour your anger into a direct response to something going on.
Social media; Our personal relationships and news sources, is something we must all exist in. It should be noted this situation is founded on the way social media companies use data harvesting as a funding model. Supporting sites that is paid for by its users, like pillowfort, or better yet, using fully non-commercial, decentralized social media like mastodon, pleroma, pixelfed, peertube and scuttlebutt, would remove the incentive reward outrage.
Beating the outrage machine will not be something that can be changed alone by one idea. It will take many ideas and strategies used collectively. But we can all individually make the choice to be mindful of it and resist it. To pause and not just react but consider and funnel our inherent need to right wrongs, into more constructive outlets.