Shostack + Friends Blog


Notice the Outrage Machines

With three days to the US election, the outrage machines are running on all cylinders. It'll be easier to stay happy if you remember to notice them.

To be clear, I'm not using a metaphor. Websites from news to social media use data to drive stories. Twitter's top tweets, Facebook's timeline, your local newspaper, but also Linkedin, Medium, Buzzfeed, - all are focused on keeping you on their site as long as possible to show you as many ads as possible. The key way that they do that is by measuring and optimizing engagement. Engagement is not a single number. It's a function of what the site thinks of you. Are you a woke liberal? A law and order conservative? An evangelical? Of course, because it's all code, it's not a single characterization, but dozens or hundreds of characteristics, and those characteristics are used to find and display the content that best provokes people like you. (They say "engage," I say "provoke.")

So if you're a woke liberal, you'll see outrageous content about voter suppression. If you're a conservative, you see content about voter fraud. If you're an evangelical.. Everyone is being shown content that sets us up with an expectation of violence on election day. (I gotta stop doing searches for this stuff.) Even being aware of it, the outrage machine is frustrating to watch. The most extreme comments and posts are the ones that you'll see.

There's all sorts of things to say about the threats that these systems pose to our self-conception, to our conceptions of those around us, and our understanding of the world. These tools are making a small set of people very rich. But those are posts for another day.

Today, and for the next few days, it will be very hard to avoid engagement engines. Being aware of the manipulation can help. Look for the tactics that are enraging you and those around you. Watch for the drama triangle.

The practice of noting: simply being reflective and conscious of how you feel, and why is really helpful. For example, "I'm angry" or "I'm angry that this blogger is taking sides while trying to appear reasonable." "I'm angry that this blogger isn't condemning the folks I don't like, who are clearly at fault!"

The outrage machines have been running on all cylinders, and they're going to go into overdrive. Don't let them drag you down.