The Deliberate and Systematic Engineering of Human Outrage

I just saw a TikTok by Ari Melber that feature a clip of Eric Schmidt with an apparent warning about social media and how it drives outrage.

See the clip, then scroll down for reaction:

@arimelber

Former Google CEO’s warning about social media 👀 #google #socialmedia #facebook

♬ Oh No – Kreepa

Being a 20+ year veteran of social media (since way before even MySpace and Bebo) and knowing a bit of software engineering I have followed the trends and developments with interest over the years, and arrived at the same conclusion as Eric Schmidt some years ago. It is telling that many people who warn about ‘Outrage Engineering’ are former employees of the very companies that are responsible for it. Some even wrote the algorithms that they are concerned about today. See The Social Dilemma on Netflix for more on this point.

Avoiding the rabbit hole of how we got here, let’s expand the definition of social media to include not just the usual sites of Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and LinkedIn but let us also include platforms like 38 Degrees, Loudspeak, Change.org. The popular press doesn’t like to consider these as ‘social media companies’ but that’s just what they are.

These platforms, especially those in the campaigning space, exist because of online outrage. It sustains their entire business model, pays for their offices and the wages of their employees. It’s profitable too. They don’t run these campaigns and petitions out of the goodness of their heart, they have bills to pay and shareholders to appease like everyone else.

When something becomes profitable like the ‘Outrage Engineering‘ market has, others tend to join in. Let’s welcome many charities and NGOs to the fold too. I won’t name them here, but there are some with extremely dubious privacy practices too. One charity I have researched requires you to agree to their privacy policy before you can use their ’email your legislator’ tool. That policy includes you agreeing to be profiled to assess your suitability to be tapped up for donations, including a credit reference check. What’s more, it also includes profiling of your friends too to see if they are potential donors too. All you did was fill out a form to email your MP/Senator about puppies.

The charities and NGOs get donations as a result of your outrage. They know you are more likely to donate if you are angry about something. People also sign up to their mailing lists as a secondary effect of emailing their MP/Senator about something that has outraged them too. In turn the charities and NGOs are able to attract more funding and demonstrate sustainable audience engagement as an NGO and/or charity by this kind of growth.

The demonstration of sustainable audience engagement results in more successful funding applications to local and central governments who like to think that the charity/NGO in front of them is in demand, is serving a need and is engaging with a broad base of the public. In reality it is just a façade. Scratch the surface and you will see the numbers used to demonstrate ‘engagement’ are taken from the pool of the outraged.

Whilst the charity/NGO sector benefits from manufactured outrage, it is the social media companies that profit the most. Their entire business model, as Eric Schmidt says is based on engagement. And so a symbiotic relationship is created.

As for solutions – how do you stop companies, charities and NGOs benefiting from ‘Outrage Engineering’ without also cracking down on freedom of speech and expression? Do people have a right to get angry about something?

What if the anger is as a result of manipulated facts and misinformation? The anti-vaccination movement is a contemporary example of increasing radicalisation as a result of ‘Outrage Engineering’ of the worst kind where genuine fears are exploited.

Is it possible to use a blunt instrument like the law to identify the difference between organic outrage when in possession of all the salient facts, and outrage that has been deliberately construed for material gain? I leave that for greater legislative minds than mine. I would humbly suggest that rather than primary legislation a series of regulatory changes further down the statute books would be a better approach, either through regulatory bodies or secondary legislation. For instance, it could be possible to exclude the numbers generated by advocacy tools as part of submissions for funding, or require greater transparency around these tools. Better enforcement of existing data protection measures seems the simplest solution – why are regulatory bodies not auditing and inspecting the privacy policies of some of the biggest and most wealthy NGOs and charities around?

Is it possible to develop a technological solution? For sure. The question is which one do you want, and to answer that you need more money and expertise than I have but the social media companies have in abundance.

Is it even a problem that needs to be solved? I humbly suggest we do need to solve it because things are getting worse, and eventually more people will get hurt.

TL;DR: ‘Outrage Engineering’ will be the scandal nobody wants to talk about, let alone solve, until lots more people die and they do the analysis and realise that manufactured outrage played a part. We’ve already seen it happen with the Capitol Hill attack. It will get worse.


2 responses to “The Deliberate and Systematic Engineering of Human Outrage”

  1. Ironically, in order for outrage engineering to get addressed people would have to become outraged about outrage engineering, and my post could be argued as attempting to engineer and rouse that very outrage.

  2. I haven’t touched on the role of the media in the piece because the media hasn’t changed – it just reports on things like it always has and relies largely on what it is fed. The media always needs a source, which is social media and outrage engineers. (Social media is not a good name for what social media is these days but that’s another topic entirely).

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