How Social Media Profits from Our Moral Emotions

You mad, bro? The way that Facebook (and Twitter) manipulates your brain should be the very thing that outrages us the most.

Molly Crockett: We live in a world now where there is an economic model that strongly incentivizes online platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter to capture as much of our attention as possible. The way to do that is to promote content that is the most engaging. And what is the most engaging? Moral content. There was a recent study that came out of NYU recently that characterized the language in tweets. 

And this study, which was led by William Brady and Jay Van Bavel and colleagues, found that each “moral emotional” word in a tweet increased the likelihood of a retweet by 20 percent. 

So content that has moral and emotional qualities to it, of which moral outrage is the poster child, is the most engaging content. And so that means that the algorithms that select for what is shown to all of us in our newsfeeds are selecting for the content that’s going to be the most engaging, because that draws the most attention—because that creates the most revenue through ad sales for these companies. 

And so this creates an information ecosystem where there’s a kind of natural selection process going on, and the most outrageous content is going to rise to the top.

So this suggests that the kinds of stories that we read in our newsfeeds online might be artificially inflated in terms of how much outrage they provoke. And I’ve actually found some data that speaks to this. 

So there was a study a few years ago by Will Hofmann and Linda Skitka, colleagues at the University of Chicago where they tracked people’s daily experiences with moral and immoral events in their everyday lives. And they pinged people’s smartphones a few times a day and had them rate whether in the past hour they had had any moral or immoral experiences. And they had people rate how emotional they felt, out outraged they felt, how happy and so on. 

This data became publicly available and so I was able to reanalyze the data, because these researchers had asked them: “Where did you learn about these immoral events? Online, in person, on TV, radio, newspaper, et cetera?” 

And so I was able to analyze this data and show that immoral events that people learn about online trigger more outrage than immoral events that they learn about in person or through traditional forms of media like TV, newspaper and radio. 

So this supports the idea that the algorithms that drive the presentation of news content online are selecting that content that provokes perhaps higher levels of outrage than we even see on the news. And, of course what we see normally in our daily lives. 

It’s an open question, “What are the long term consequences of this constant exposure to outrage triggering material?” One possibility that has been floated in the news recently is: outrage fatigue—and I think many of us can relate to the idea that—if you’re constantly feeling outraged, it’s exhausting. And there may be a limit to how much outrage we’re able to experience day to day.

That is potentially harmful in terms of the long term social consequences, because if we are feeling outraged about relatively minor things and that’s depleting some kind of reserve, that may mean that we’re not able to feel outraged for things that really matter.

On the other hand there’s also research in aggression showing that if you give people the opportunity to vent their aggressive feelings about something that’s made them mad, that actually can increase the likelihood of future aggression. 

So in the literature on anger and outrage there are two possibilities. One being this long term depletion, “outrage fatigue”.

The other being a kind of sensitization. And we need to do more research to figure out which of those might be operating in the context of online outrage expression. It may be different for different people. 

Social media is very unlikely to go away because it taps into the things that we find most rewarding. Connection with others, expressing our moral values, sharing those moral values with others, building our reputation. And, of course, what makes social media so compelling, and so addictive even, is the fact that these platforms are really tapping into very ancient neural circuitries that we know are involved in reward processing, in habit formation. 

One intriguing possibility because the way these apps are designed are so streamlined—You have stimuli icons that are so recognizable and familiar to all of us who use these apps. And very effortless responses to like, to share, to retweet. 

And then we get feedback, and that feedback in the form of likes and shares is delivered at unpredictable times. And unpredictable rewards, we know from decades of research in neuroscience, are the fastest way to establish habit. 

Now habit is a behavior that is expressed without regard to its long term consequences. Just as someone who’s habitually reaching for the bag of potato chips when they’re not hungry. They’re eating those potato chips, not to achieve some goal to satisfy their hunger, but just mindlessly.

We might be mindlessly expressing moral emotions like outrage without actually necessarily experiencing them strongly or desiring to express those so broadly the way that we just do on social media. 

And so I think it’s really worth considering and having a conversation about whether we want some of our strongest moral emotions, which are so core to who we are—Do we want those under the control of algorithms whose main purpose is to generate advertising revenue for big tech companies?

Social media has been, without a doubt, one of the biggest explosions in connectivity in human history. That's the good part. The bad part is that the minds of the people within these companies have manipulated users into an addictive cycle. You're already familiar with it: post content, receive rewards (likes, comments, etc). But the staggering of the rewards is the habit-forming part, and the reason most moderately heavy social media users check their apps or newsfeeds some 10-to-50 times a day. And to add to the problem — these algorithms have been strengthend to show you more and more outrageous content. It genuinely depletes your ability to be outraged by things in real life (for instance, a sexual predator for a President). Molly Crockett posits that we should all be aware of the dangers of these algorithms... and that we might have to start using them a lot less if we want to have a normal society back.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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