how social media algorithms turn us and our politicians into trolls | [ weird things ]

how social media algorithms turn us and our politicians into trolls

A study of American politicians’ tweets shows they’ve become angrier and more crass over the last decade. Why? Because social media algorithms reward them for it.
fighting politicians illustration

Over the last six years or so, you may have come to the conclusion that the tone of social media posts filling up your timelines has become noticeably angrier and more confrontational. Maybe you couldn’t quite put an objective measure on it but so many interactions just seem smarmier, meaner, more bitter and sarcastic. Maybe you’ve even participated in this yourself, responding with the same energy as the one immolating your feeds. Well, according to several studies, it’s not just your imagination. Social media really is making all of us meaner.

A recent survey of Snapchat and Facebook users showed that the more likely a user is addicted to social media, the more likely they are to revel in being trolls. This finding makes sense based on Facebook’s own research showing that they can manipulate user’s moods and feelings with the content they choose to display in their feeds, and from the fact that the company set out to build an outrage machine for increased engagement to boost investor inflows and profits. This is why outrage and snark have become the language of the social web: it makes money.

Even more concerningly, this maniacal focus on antagonistic engagement over anything else is spreading to politicians. A new study from the University of Winnipeg analyzing what American politicians are posting on Twitter found their tweets a quarter ruder and more disrespectful on average since 2009, and trending further into the gutter. Why would politicians play mean girls with each other on social media? Because they’re rewarded with attention and the platform will further elevate their crude tweets to keep users’ eyeballs where they can see more ads.

the real danger of a troll government

This creates a very dangerous phenomenon. We’ve been coached to be mean to each other on social media and expect to be angry about something when we log on, and while this is a major problem, it’s even worse when politicians log on to collect rage clicks instead of coming across as voices of reason and problem-solvers. When our leaders act like trolls instead of presenting plans and policies, or setting a standard for civility, societies lose in the process because there’s no incentive or reward to actually act like a rational adult.

Why pass a law to address gun violence when you can dunk on “leftist gun-grabbers” on your Twitter feed? Why respect the democratic process when you can just tweet “cry more” when you win an election, and promise retribution in disjointed rants when you lose one? Politics are very quickly devolving into sarcastic and antagonistic performance art, a bit like insult comedy, then we wonder why nothing actually gets done and candidates for office are becoming ever louder and more obnoxious louts because the algorithms elevate them for this behavior. Even worse, the troll politicians’ supporters feel encouraged to engage in similar antics by example.

In other words, being a professional troll while shaping national discourse and writing laws is a viable option thanks to a machine built to keep you tuned in out of rage. If anything, it’s better to be as outrageous as possible because the old adage that all press is good press has become true to a disturbing extent. But what if you don’t want to live in a country run and shaped by a gaggle of outrage artists and demagogues, and their loyal fans happy to follow their lead into the abyss shoved into your face against your will? How do you counter their influence?

looking for the soft underbelly of the social media beast

Ultimately, governance based on political extremism will backfire and collapse because those who end up occupying important posts have no interest in actually running societies. They’re far, far more interested in ranting about 6G Illuminati vaccines and Satanic Reptoid pizza cannibals than doing the important, boring work civilizations need to function. At some point, people will want their potholes filled, children educated, and parks cleaned. When that fails to happen, the extremist governments fall apart almost overnight.

Sadly, the problem is that while theirs are the loudest voices in the room and the media, both social and legacy, is fixated only on the topics they want front and center, real problems can’t be solved because they’re actively being ignored. Between the time performative extremists rise to power and their implosion, lives will be ruined while truckloads of taxpayer cash are wasted on imaginary problems. Realizing this, a lot of people are starting to look for alternative approaches to social media, something less interested in monetizing eyeballs while lying to us for profit.

Perhaps the most radical idea may see free social media like Facebook and Twitter relegated to the status of trashy tabloid cesspools, and the rise of paid platforms with an incentive to inform and connect without trying to monetize attention since users are already paying. We very much need to keep in mind that free tools mean that we’re the products and there’s every incentive to lie to us or manipulate us to make a buck at the end of the day. And far too many of today’s social and political woes are the direct product of failing to fully grasp that fact.

See: Meshi, D., et al. (2020) Snapchat vs. Facebook: Differences in problematic use, behavior change attempts, and trait social reward preferences, Addictive Behavior Reports, Vol. 12, DOI: 10.1016/j.abrep.2020.100294

Frimer, J., et al. (2022) Incivility Is Rising Among American Politicians on Twitter, Social Psychological and Personality Science, DOI: 10.1177/19485506221083811

# tech // algorithms / social media / social psychology

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