The Problem with Polarizing Content
Society always pays the price
As a content creator, if you want to get thousands of eyeballs on your work, make sure you offend. Prime your audience for a fight by goading them into clicking and slap their outrage awake one cliché at a time.
On platforms that carry advertising, it isn’t quality or ethics that matter but how long a user stays on the site. Engagement is advertising revenue and the more controversy a platform hosts, the more successful it and those who provide it with the content of discontent get.
But simple maths often cause non-tech folks to overlook the human aspect of the internet. Most of us in the West carry it in our pocket and we rely on it for every aspect of our daily life, including but not limited to information, education, and entertainment.
We don’t just live on the internet together, we are it.
Algorithms are programmed by humans. As such, they will always reflect the prejudices, opinions, and agendas of those who put them together.
Much as the content we create reflects ours.
And like people, algorithms are teachable. We show them what to boost through our browsing habits. The job of the algorithm is to maximize engagement by presenting us with content related to whatever we’ve just consumed.
If there’s a strong case for tech transparency, where’s the logic in demanding an industry be held accountable if we, users, aren’t prepared to do the same with the content we create and consume?
What we see in the interactive digital mirror isn’t just a reflection of society, it shapes it. Platforms do not become agents of propaganda, we do. However, our allegiance to free speech seems antithetical to most forms of moderation that would uphold ethics.
Platforms only became arenas for gladiators of greed battling for eyeballs because we made them that way. Many of them started out as a neutral space, much like the internet itself.
Remember the moment we realized there was money to be made from our trauma, shame, and humiliation? That moment ruined many of us.
The lure of lucre forced us into content creation niches we are now trapped in because the trauma that was supposed to inform our work came to define it. By choosing to turn ourselves into professional victims, we relinquished the intellectual and emotional agency we needed to overcome.
And now everything is toxic, triggering, or both.
This is on us all. There would be no supply without demand. Platforms don’t enable aberrations, we do, every single time we show algorithms this is the kind of content we cannot look away from.
But how can content be optimized for quality when monetization continues to be dependent on baiting users?
No one is better at getting attention and keeping it than the current incumbent of the White House. What many of those who emulate his name-calling, bullying, and lying forget is that attention comes with the job in this case.
If internet incivility certainly predates the arrival of Trump in Washington, he has normalized cashing in on the outrage boom and now everyone wants in, from assorted media pundits to regular folks with a smartphone.
The formula for monetary success is straightforward: Foment dissent, encourage finger-pointing, press your audience’s emotional buttons and play people like an accordion, one whine at a time.
And since the personal is inherently political, many of us no longer know any other way to communicate. We’ve gotten so used to shouting and complaining we’ve lost the ability to listen, think, and interact in meaningful, non-confrontational ways.
No algorithm can be programmed to be ethical as it is devised by humans. Before algorithms can catch up, we need to fix our ethics.
Overhauling the content supply chain is straightforward enough but it may take a while. On the one hand, we can commit to producing signal instead of noise. On the other, we can adopt more discerning browsing habits.
The latter is where it starts. We don’t have to be content creators to have an impact. We’re unlikely to push back against content promoting troll baiting and hate reading by appealing to reason.
But we can take the money away from the perpetrators.
It’s as simple as remembering to log out of our platform accounts and using a VPN. Seriously. Google may well already know you better than your mom by now.
If there’s no money to be made then the incentive to produce polarizing content goes away. We do not have to be complicit in supporting a content economy that hurts society, we don’t even have to engage with it. When misery mongers can’t cash in anymore, they’ll stop or move on to the next best thing, which could conceivably be quality if we’ve trained the algorithms right.
If Tim Berners-Lee still believes we can get the web we want then there’s hope for us all.
What if mutual respect went viral instead of outrage?
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.