This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit

The story of how one metric has changed the way you see the world

I’m going to tell you a few things you probably already know

Every time you open your phone or your computer, your brain is walking onto a battleground. The aggressors are the architects of your digital world, and their weapons are the apps, news feeds, and notifications in your field of view every time you look at a screen.

The War for Your Attention

Before I go any further, let me assure you that this is not a list of grievances about the evils of technology. I am not a Luddite. Like much of humanity, I deeply value my devices as a helpful prosthesis for my memory, my productivity, and my ability to connect to the people I care about.

The History of the New

“The Media” as we know it is not that old. For most of our history the News was, literally, the plural of the ‘New’ thing(s) people heard about and shared, and was limited by physical proximity and word-of-mouth. Since the invention of the printing press, the news consisted of notes posted in public places and pamphlets distributed to the small number of people who could actually read them.

World War 1 “Atrocity Propaganda” & Image featuring a German soldier executing a Belgian nurse. Source

The Rise of Algorithmic Engagement

Source: Techcrunch

What The News Does To Stay Alive

Hacking your attention with emotional packaging

How It’s Changing Us

When perceived threats become “realities”

Engagement optimization has distorted our perception of threats at a very high level.

Source: Pew/Gallup

How our media system fuels our fears

A critical example of this is terrorism, which today feels more prominent than at any time in modern history. Reading the front page of any major newspaper suggests that it is one of the top causes of death worldwide.

Source: Priceonomics / Nemil Dalal. Chart shows sampling of data and stories defined as “Islamic terror” compared to overall homicide deaths. Note that terrorist attacks by non-Muslims are still not referenced as terrorism by news outlets in initial reporting.

How our media fuels outrage and changes politics

The same dynamic plays out in the political arena. During the 2016 election cycle, CNN made over a billion dollars in gross profit above the previous year driven primarily by advertising attached to news about the most outrageous candidate: Donald Trump.

Snapshot of primary season media coverage, March 14–23, 2016, Source: Ev Boyle/USC Annenberg

We Have Democratized Propaganda for Profit

It’s impossible to look at the media system as a separate thing from functioning democracies. Our opinions are always affected by the news, and our voting decisions reflect that knowledge. If you look at society like a big collective human organism, the news media is something like a central nervous system. It helps us respond to threats, share information, and figure out what needs to be fixed.

This Isn’t Going Away

In many ways these algorithms are a reflection of us. They are mapping natural human behaviors and tendencies — what we’ll click, what we’ll be outraged by, what we’ll love. They are part of us. But these maps include some of our worst biases, irrational fears, and bad habits. We must design these algorithms to account for them.

Some Thoughts on Solutions

I have been collecting them — and they are more than can fit here. The News Feed Editor and others like it are still in their infancy. As we learn more about how these tools of algorithmic engagement skew our reality, no single company is to blame. Google, Apple, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook and literally every major media provider are players in this arms race to capture our attention.



Seeking human improvement.

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