The other day, I posted my 15,000th tweet since I first signed up for Twitter in July 2007. Back then, it was called Twttr, and there were no hashtags or @mentions conventions. The homepage was a live stream of every single tweet, and a loaf of bread cost only a nickel.
In the decade since, a lot of things have changed about Twitter. For one, the risk of nuclear war being set off via a tweet has increased enormously. For another, there are a lot more people on Twitter. Bread also costs more. But what really strikes me about social media—Twitter and everything else—is that it seems like the same conversation over and over again. Sure, the conversations are about new things, but isn’t it always the same conversation? Something happens, and you’re either for it or against it, but you’re mad either way because you can’t believe half the country is against it or for it.
After this year’s The Super Bowl, The Outline’s Alex Nichols explored the unseemly parentage of some of these conversations in a piece titled Lady Doritos, the patron saint of outrage marketing:
These brief ping-pong games of feigned outrage can be entertaining, but they ultimately accomplish nothing. Each side digs in its heels until the discussion becomes a parody of itself. The only appreciable effect of any given micro-controversy is that the phrase in question — whether it be “well-done steak,” “shithole countries,” or “covfefe” — sees a brief uptick in search traffic and appears organically in millions of users’ feeds. This proposition is undoubtedly highly attractive to advertisers, who normally have to fork over $200,000 to get something trending on Twitter. Here’s my theory: corporate marketing departments are setting out to hijack this process, thus accomplishing the same thing — but for free.
Set aside the tedium in endless cycles of (genuine, but nonetheless) performative outrage. It’s hard to argue with Nichols’s theory. I mean, I’ve been convinced for a while that Urban Outfitters’s marketing strategy seems to revolve around a bimonthly outrage.
This week it was “Lady Doritos.” In an interview on the Freakonomics podcast (which I was upset to learn exists) PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi suggested that the chip division of her company was developing a cleaner, less crunchy Dorito variety aimed at women. As is the internet’s wont, Nooyi’s comments were wildly misconstrued and became a flashpoint for Twitter hysteria. “Lady Doritos” were never actually going to be a real thing, and PepsiCo walked back the suggestion within a day with an incredible tweet: “We already have Doritos for women — they’re called Doritos, and they’re loved by millions.” Truer words were never spoken.
Come for the PepsiCo malarkey, stay for Disney’s PR firm making sure everyone knows there’s a pirate version of The Last Jedi with all the women edited out. I really like Nichols’s reporting here.
Sidebar: Really, what did the outrage and teeth-gnashing accomplish? It’s bad enough that we had another stupid argument online about Lady Doritos or Daisy Ridley. But a thing that was never going to happen didn’t happen, and a lot of people angrily tweeted in agreement and/or disagreement with one another. I can’t escape the feeling that I’m participating in the Outrage Culture Wars with every tweet. Every 140 characters is a window of opportunity for millions of strangers to angrily shriek their approval or disapproval at the values I’ve signaled. Heck, even the fact that tweets are 280 characters instead of 140 is a chance for people to take sides. Wading through these cesspools wondering how much of the panic has purposefully engineered to sell more corn chips or movie tickets is just… awful.
But It Gets Worse
On reflection, having Disney and Pepsi game the system might be one of the better cases. At least they’re only gaslighting you into buying something. The algorithms powering social media seem to prefer hoaxes and conspiracy theories over reality, as the Guardian’s Paul Lewis reported on a software program that catalogs what YouTube’s algorithm shows users:
The software [Former YouTube Engineer Guillaume] Chaslot wrote was designed to provide the world’s first window into YouTube’s opaque recommendation engine. The program simulates the behaviour of a user who starts on one video and then follows the chain of recommended videos – much as I did after watching the Logan Paul video – tracking data along the way.
Over the last 18 months, Chaslot has used the program to explore bias in YouTube content promoted during the French, British and German elections, global warming and mass shootings, and published his findings on his website, Algotransparency.com. Each study finds something different, but the research suggests YouTube systematically amplifies videos that are divisive, sensational and conspiratorial.
When his program found a seed videos by the searching the query “who is Michelle Obama?” and then followed the chain of “up next” suggestions, for example, most of the recommended videos said she “is a man”. More than 80% of the YouTube-recommended videos about the pope detected by his program described the Catholic leader as “evil”, “satanic”, or “the anti-Christ”. There were literally millions of videos uploaded to YouTube to satiate the algorithm’s appetite for content claiming the earth is flat. “On YouTube, fiction is outperforming reality,” Chaslot says.
On the one hand, YouTube can’t really control what its users upload. That’s one of the big ideas behind social media, right? People make the content, and other people follow channels of content that they like, and media gets democratized. My tweets are on even footing with CBS News: I don’t need a network of radio and television affiliates or a web site.
On the other hand, YouTube can control what its users see. There’s something like a hundred hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. There’s literally no way to watch it all. YouTube is going to recommend some videos over others, but I can’t stand networks like YouTube pretending to be passive systems. Even worse, by promoting videos claiming the earth is flat, YouTube is creating an incentive for people to make more flat earth videos.
Back to Lewis:
[Zeynep] Tufekci, the sociologist who several months ago warned about the impact YouTube may have had on the election, tells me YouTube’s recommendation system has probably figured out that edgy and hateful content s engaging. “This is a bit like an autopilot cafeteria in a school that has figured out children have sweet teeth, and also like fatty and salty foods,” she says. “So you make a line offering such food, automatically loading the next plate as soon as the bag of chips or candy in front of the young person has been consumed.”
Once that gets normalised, however, what is fractionally more edgy or bizarre becomes, Tufekci says, novel and interesting. “So the food gets higher and higher in sugar, fat and salt – natural human cravings – while the videos recommended and auto-played by YouTube get more and more bizarre or hateful.”
If the cafeteria started serving chocolate-covered deep-fried Lady Doritos, parents (if not teachers) would understandably revolt. Tufecki’s one of the single best writers about this issue you can read. Note that her analogy relies on the duty of care the adults in the room owe the children. The school isn’t a passive system: it’s administered or at the very least regulated by the government to enrich the minds (and bodies) of its students. Unregulated networks like YouTube have no interest other than engagement.
Tufekci also asks the deeper question:
But why would a bias toward ever more weird or divisive videos benefit one candidate over another? That depends on the candidates. Trump’s campaign was nothing if not weird and divisive. Tufekci points to studies showing that “field of misinformation” largely tilted anti-Clinton before the election. “Fake news providers,” she says, “found that fake anti-Clinton material played much better with the pro-Trump base than did fake anti-Trump material with the pro-Clinton base.”
You do have to wonder why one party’s voters seem so much more susceptible to conspiracy theories and hoaxes than the other’s. There’s no left-wing equivalent to Fox News; nobody on MSNBC or CNN has spent the year breathlessly speculating on the Pee Tape the way Fox’s anchors endlessly entertained the idea that President Obama was not an American citizen. I’m not sure if that’s a cause or an effect. To be clear, there are groups of people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 who also think President Bush Did 9/11 and so on, but those groups of people aren’t mainstream the way Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Alex Jones are.
One Last Thought
Let me switch gears and come back to that in a second. There’s a famous quote that’s been attributed to just about every boxer since Jack Johnson that goes something like this: “Everyone has a strategy until they get punched in the face.” Any ideology or system of values ought to be able to interact with reality. There’s an old joke about the dangers of overvaluing abstract thinking:
Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer, “I have the solution, but it works only in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum”.
A friend of mine with an education in economics once explained to me why he had little faith in capitalism. As an economic system, capitalism relies upon (1) consumers with perfect information who (2) make perfectly rational decisions and (3) perfectly efficient transactions. But of course, consumers are people, and people don’t even have perfect information about how irrational they are. Consumers likewise don’t have perfect information about what the rest of the economy is doing. Oh, and if you think transactions are perfectly efficient, I have a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who can sell you information on where to buy a bridge.
I’m starting to worry that democracy is relying on spherical cows: human beings who live in the same reality. Back when there were three TV networks, and everyone watched the same nightly news reports, that worked more or less okay. But YouTube and Facebook’s algorithms feed us more and more outrageous and appalling content—whether it’s true or not—until we live in parallel universes. And I don’t think there are going to be fewer algorithms feeding us information in the future; there will probably be more.