Increasing Intensity–For Profit

Remember when Donald Rumsfeld talked about “known unknowns”? It was a clunky phrase, but in a weird way, it describes much of today’s world.

Take social media, for example. What we know is that pretty much everyone is on one or another (or many) social media platforms. What we don’t know is how the various algorithms those sites employ are affecting our opinions, our relationships and our politics. (Just one of the many reasons to be nervous about the reach of wacko conspiracies like QAnon, not to mention the upcoming election…)

A recent essay in the “subscriber only” section of Talking Points Memo focused on those algorithms, and especially on the effect of those used by Facebook. The analysis suggested that the algorithms were designed to increase users’ intensities and Facebook’s profits, designs that have contributed mightily to the current polarization of American voters.

The essay referenced recent peer-reviewed research confirming something we probably all could have guessed: the more time people spend on Facebook the more polarized their beliefs become. What most of us wouldn’t have guessed is the finding that the effect is  five times greater for conservatives than for liberals–an effect that was not found for other social media sites.

The study looked at the effect on conservatives of Facebook usage and Reddit usage. The gist is that when conservatives binge on Facebook the concentration of opinion-affirming content goes up (more consistently conservative content) but on Reddit it goes down significantly. This is basically a measure of an echo chamber. And remember too that these are both algorithmic, automated sites. Reddit isn’t curated by editors. It’s another social network in which user actions, both collectively and individually, determine what you see. If you’ve never visited Reddit let’s also just say it’s not all for the faint of heart. There’s stuff there every bit as crazy and offensive as anything you’ll find on Facebook.

The difference is in the algorithms and what the two sites privilege in content. Read the article for the details but the gist is that Reddit focuses more on interest areas and viewers’ subjective evaluations of quality and interesting-ness whereas Facebook focuses on intensity of response.

Why the difference? Reddit is primarily a “social” site; Facebook is an advertising site. Its interest in stoking intensity is in service of that advertising–the longer you are engaged with the platform, the more time you spend on it, and especially how intensely you are engaged, all translate into increased profit.

Facebook argues that the platform is akin to the telephone; no one blames telephone when people use them to spread extremist views. It argues that the site is simply facilitating communication. But–as the essay points out– that’s clearly not true. Facebook’s search engine is designed to encourage and amplify some emotions and responses–something your telephone doesn’t do.  It’s a “polarization/extremism generating machine.”

The essay ends with an intriguing–and apt–analogy to the economic description of externalities:

Producing nuclear energy is insanely profitable if you sell the energy, take no safety precautions and dump the radioactive waste into the local river. In other words, if the profits remain private and the costs are socialized. What makes nuclear energy an iffy financial proposition is the massive financial costs associated with doing otherwise. Facebook is like a scofflaw nuclear power company that makes insane profits because it runs its reactor in the open and dumps the waste in the bog behind the local high school.

Facebook’s externality is political polarization.

The question–as always–is “what should we do about it?”


  1. Facebook is the only “social media” I am connected to. I see rare support posts for Republicans or conservative issues on my Facebook page and none in my E-mails; I do receive some posts from and for Dr. Woody Myers and Rep. Andre Carson and anti-Trump comments. Because candidates do not seem to mail flyers to potential voters, I appreciate their posts on Facebook and always share them. I see few company or product advertising posts which I scroll past; somehow I am receiving mostly positive posts and contacts with family and friends so the anti-Facebook reports always confuse me.

    Family and friends keeping in touch on Facebook and Facebook Messenger does seem to have taken the place of E-mail contact which is more personal and preferable. My political views have not changed or been effected by posts but I have researched some issues due to Facebook posts. In 2016, during the campaign and after Trump’s appointment I was inundated with Trump supporting posts by family, friends and strangers; I requested those who supported Trump stop posting their support on my Facebook page. Has Facebook blocked their posts or did they block me?

  2. Why I terminated and permanently deleted my Facebook account last May. I do not miss it. For a more in depth read on how this works as well as the dissembling and maneuvering by Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg I recommend the book Zucked by Roger McNamee, an early Facebook insider.

    For my daily feed of politics and news I feel Twitter is much more satisfying. It’s also generally populated by a much younger crowd so I feel I get a better view of where things are going. I also follow people who are very critical

    If following your kids and grandkids and their pictures then I recommend Instagram, which is a Facebook property, but far more benign and visual. Enjoy!

  3. I meant to say: I also follow people who are very critical of the main stream media for their often biased and self-promoting takes on various events. One such account to follow is Soledad O’Brien, a former ABC host and correspondent. @soledadobrien

  4. Facebook was originally a social media platform for sharing content. Then it was turned into a profit-maximizing scheme, and the problems began. Like Google, they collect information about your likes and dislikes via and store that information via cookies.

    As an advertiser, I can be very selective about who sees my product or services being offered. It’s target marketing. If I want only females ages 25-45 living in Indianapolis who are republicans and interested in politics, I can narrow my ads to only be viewed by women meeting that criteria.

    If you buy an ad in the newspaper, only readers would see it. It’s why companies like Gannett used to inflate their number of readers so they could charge more for their ad space.

    Place your ad on a billboard, and you’ll get seen by anybody driving down the road.

    One interesting note is Facebook didn’t place media articles on your page for a long time. Still, media companies began crying foul since as FB grew, subscriptions to local newspapers declined dramatically. Today, if you’re a business and don’t have a FB page, you basically don’t exist to many people.

    It’s become a virtual society.

    So, what kind of politico-economic systemic do you want for this virtual society?

    I’m on board for the whole internet being turned over to the people via a utility, and if there are profits to be made, let the people use it be enriched. Once you sit down and look at what has happened to the internet and the technology around it, why am I paying a monthly fee to use it? Who decided that only a couple of companies could maximize their profits by charging me access?

    These profit maximizing schemes need to be broken up and given back to the people — full democratization.

  5. I use facebook for a couple of things. I first saw Randy Rainbow and Trae Crowder on FB. I get “Tundra” which is periodically hilarious, “Far Side” and “Bizzaro” which are always hilarious. I also do a weekly rant since Covid came to town, so I get to engage in a little self expression. I also get connected directly to Snope anytime I want to check the validity of a post. I guess I’m a bit less susceptible to the sales pitch, since I’m a lifelong cynic.

  6. Facenook stole my credit card info to keep it nice and safe for futute uses and to share with their advertizers. It did not ask permissii, to put me on those advertizers’ lists. I could not find a way to remove it from their datta storage about me. Was forced to report my card as stolen by Facebook and get a new number in the hope it would protect me from their theft and invasion of my privacy.

  7. Like JoAnn Green, Facebook is the only social media platform I use regularly. I use it to keep in touch with friends and family and limit my connections. As we are all liberals, we all post political items, but those are the only political posts I see for the most part. I will see some from campaigns I already support but rarely anything from the opposition. When I do I report and block it. The same with ads. I see very few and never click through on them. While I disagree with FB’s business model, I don’t want to lose the connections I have on FB.

  8. I spend very little time on Facebook and use it to communicate with my gaming group,friends, and family. I guess I have the old fashioned desire to talk on the phone or spend time with people face to face.

    I am not on any other sites.

  9. One of the things that we learned a long time ago is that perhaps Trump’s only talent is as a celebrity performing his act over and over again because he is a celebrity only for being one. He has to do very little except to occupy headlines. Since he starting being what he is those headlines have moved from radio and newspapers, to TV, to social media but his instincts have kept him relevant in the one field that he is, as a celebrity.

    He decided to take over the GOP rather than Democrats because they had learned as a party that celebrity was a path to power, in their case the only path available, so they had promoted a series of entertainers to become talking head celebrities. They understood that while he may bring nothing else he brought them more of that.

    Democrats were caught flat footed (a boxing term that either means not ready or too tired to engage) in 2016 but not this year. Fortunately for Republicans the years in between the US really didn’t need a President because of the Obama economic recovery and the state of the world so the “deep state” kept the country working as Trump reinforced the celebrity that made him, and now them too, relevant at least until the pandemic came and became all that was relevant. If Trump had learned over the first three years as President how to do the job he had it could well have made the difference in this election. It’s clear now though that he hadn’t learned a thing so his national strategy was to be a bigger celebrity than coronavirus was but that failed Trump and the GOP and now here we are on the brink of saving the country from both the virus and the Republicans.

    A very close call.

  10. I am not sure why anyone would be surprised that the platforms like Face Book, etc., are in business to make a profit. You have a choice to use them or not. I read where the Republicans are miffed that supposedly “Conservative” content is being deleted. Once in a while I read posts from my Trumpet “Friends” on Face Book to re-post something that Face Book has tried to suppress. I guess it is part of the persecution complex.

    I always find it humorous that when one of these Trumpet “Friends” posts something so clearly false that a Fact Check is posted to correct them, The Trumpeter’s go silent. They also double down and write that Snopes is part of the Liberal Deep State.

    There is not much to be done, the Reactionaries find Web Sites that agree with their beliefs, even if it is totally lacking in fact.

  11. To me it all comes down to confirmation bias. Ignorant people are often aware of their condition and want to be reassured that its not as severe as they might think. Hearing others echo their ignorance gives them the confidence that they are not alone, yet they remain angry because the disturbing feeling of incompetence they perceive in themselves persists. There is an easy cure available – give critical thinking a try – but most never get that advice or are too angry to try it.

    The cure, as Sheila often points out, is to broaden the teaching of civics and civic responsibility. Alas, the forces that oppose enlightenment in the first place work hard to make sure that workable solutions are ignored, defunded, perverted, placed on the defensive in the name of teaching job skills, or any of a number of growing choices on the Republicans’ list of reasons why ignorance is superior to knowledge and why being told what to think is more acceptable than figuring it out for yourself. Ipso facto, a president and a Senate who all missed the college lecture explaining that Dunning and Kruger were describing a phenomenon, not advocating its adoption.

  12. I don’t know if quicksand is real or not but as a movie plot it doomed people in it to death by not being able to breathe because they struggled so much to avoid that fate.

    That’s where Trump’s campaign is now. He’s struggling to beat the pandemic for celebrity but the more he struggles the more compelling the celebrity of the coronavirus becomes.

    If he had relaxed the struggle to out celebrity it and focused on working to defeat it the situation now could have bode well for Republicans and Trump, if bad for the virus, and good for the country on the short term if bad for the country and the world over the long term.

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