In November of 2018, a video titled “Fighting Manspreading…with Bleach!” was uploaded onto the Internet.
In the video, a “radical feminist” walks through various subway cars with a bottle of bleach. When she sees a man “manspreading” (sitting with his legs spread open), she pours the bleach onto the man’s crotch and runs away.
Shot from a “hidden camera” perspective, the clip immediately went viral. And anywhere the video was posted, small-scale wars would break out in the accompanying comment section.
For some, the video was proof that feminism is a dangerous, irrational, and intolerant ideology. For others, it was a humorous and brave portrait of a young woman taking aim at the patriarchy – it wasn’t so much what she did, but what the act represented.
Here’s the catch: The video was fake, and was shot and produced by a Russian propaganda website. Everyone in the video was an actor. The bleach was actually water in a bleach bottle. It wasn’t even filmed in the United States.
And, yet, it lit up the Internet.
But it’s not even an isolated incident.
For example, in Texas, a “Pro-Muslim” rally was held at the same location and time as an “Anti-Islamification of America” rally on May 21, 2016.
The twist? The dueling rallies were organized by Facebook pages created and controlled by propagandists in Russia.
In fact, a Congressional inquiry uncovered more than 3,000 Facebook ads and pages designed to sow discord during the 2016 Presidential Election that were created by Russian-owned companies with ties to the Kremlin.
But I don’t want to talk about election interference. Instead, I want to talk about why we’re so vulnerable and susceptible to that type of manipulation.
And, to be honest, I think we already know the answer.
On average, we check our phones 85 times a day.
We touch our phones about 2,617 times per day.
Half of all Americans check their phones before getting out of bed in the morning.
Adults in the U.S. spend nearly four hours per day interacting with apps on their smartphones and tablets.
In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes,
“The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”
At this very moment, tech companies are spending millions and millions of dollars to ensure their products become essential components of your daily routine – and they do this by installing cognitive behavioral feedback loops in your own brain.
In Irresistible, Adam Alter writes,
“Tech isn’t morally good or bad until it’s wielded by the corporations that fashion it for mass consumption. Apps and platforms can be designed to promote rich social connections; or, like cigarettes, they can be designed to addict. Today, unfortunately, many tech developments do promote addiction.”
Even the shade of red used in most social media notification alerts was selected because it triggers a particular biochemical response in the human brain.
And every time you boot up or post on social media, you’re gambling. According to behavioral psychologists, the same parts of your brain that flare with activity when you receive a push notification are the same parts of your brain that light up when you pull the handle of a slot machine.
Some people refer to this phenomenon as “Magic maybe,” or the fact that unpredictable gratification is far more pleasurable to the human brain than expected gratification.
In other words, the thrill and disappointment you feel when checking your phone for new notifications are extremely addicting.
And, just like gambling, there’s no satisfaction ceiling to your desire to be validated on social media.
Trust me: As someone who had some of his writings “go viral” and be seen by millions of people, the only lasting impact of viral fame is disappointment and disillusionment when my future writings don’t meet or exceed the same threshold.
At an event in Philadelphia, Facebook co-founder Sean Parker said,
“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once and a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or post or whatever.”
While these practices sound immoral, they’re fueled by a business model that’s even more eyebrow-raising.
Most social media sites are free to join, but they make their money by selling a digital profile of all your likes, preferences, and personal information to online advertisers.
The more photos you upload, articles you share, posts you Like, and comments you leave, the more valuable your digital profile is to potential advertisers.
You are not a user.
You are a product.
Even Instagram “blogger and influencer” culture is little more than carefully-curated and at-will product placements glossed over with a trendy filter and vague self-help rhetoric.
In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport writes,
“In Paleolithic times, it was important that you carefully managed your social standing with other members of your tribe because your survival depended on it. In the twenty-first century, however, new technologies have hijacked this deep drive to create profitable behavior addictions.”
Many of us opted into social media so we could connect with friends and not feel left out.
And now, it may be the single largest contributing factor to why we always feel left out and disconnected from our most important relationships.
It’s important to be informed, but it’s just as important to recognize when you’re being manipulated by people or an organization seeking to profit from your dwindling attention span.
As a result of our natural negativity bias, news organizations know we’re more likely to tune in if we think the world is burning down around us.
Most human behavior is driven by our innate desire to avoid pain, rejection, and fear. If you can handily manipulate one (or a combination) of those three factors, you can get someone to do just about anything.
And this makes us easy marks for people trying to get our attention.
In Them, senator Ben Sasse writes,
“The polititainment industry, in talk radio and on cable television, but especially on the internet is constantly honing its abilities to measure consumer preferences and figuring out ways to tailor content to match the target audience.”
The target audience. That’s the key phrase here.
Most modern news organizations are news “aggregators,” which means they curate content rather than produce it themselves. Therefore, “reporting the news” is not nearly as important as “selecting which news stories to report.”
With the fragmentation of the American public, it’s much easier (and more profitable) to cultivate a loyal and consistent viewership among a very specific demographic (ex. young/liberal/unmarried or old/conservative/white) than it is to appeal to the broadest possible audience (ex. American).
This isn’t a conspiracy theory.
This is Marketing Analytics 101.
You probably do the same thing with your personal social media profile. If you post a photo that receives a lot of positive feedback, you’re probably going to post more photos like that one going forward.
Media organizations do the exact same thing, just on a much larger scale.
And when these marketing tactics collide with a deeply polarized audience, the real fireworks begin.
In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write,
“Americans now bear such animosity toward one another that it’s almost as if many are holding up signs saying, ‘Please tell me something horrible about the other side, I’ll believe anything!‘ Americans are now easily exploitable, and a large network of profit-driven media sites, political entrepreneurs, and foreign intelligence agencies are taking advantage of this vulnerability.”
In other words, as long as you tell us something that reinforces our preexisting beliefs and biases, we’ll enthusiastically hand over our consent to be manipulated and exploited for corporate profit and political gain.
While it sounds silly, we often feel personally attacked and victimized by the news because it’s been specifically designed to make you feel personally attacked and victimized.
And this makes us very susceptible to biased programming, shoddy reporting, and fake news. In fact, in the months leading up to the 2016 election, Fake News stories outperformed real news stories on Facebook.
Angry, Anxious and Alone
People are social animals.
We all value and yearn for the support and validation that comes from being accepted by a like-minded community. Many of us watch the news or participate in social media for the sense of solidarity and validation it brings us.
However, our relationship with technology has quickly evolved into a social barrier to our emotional and mental wellbeing.
In The Village Effect, research Susan Pinker writes,
“In a short evolutionary time, we have changed from group-living primates skilled at reading each other’s every gesture and intention to a solitary species, each one of us preoccupied with our own screen.”
And this is not solely a “young person” problem.
The average retired senior watches fifty-five hours of TV per week.
A Princeton study found that people over the age of 65 are more likely to share fake and inflammatory news stories than any other age demographic.
The danger, of course, is that anyone can find themselves deeply ingrained in online communities that consistently support, reinforce and peddle distorted versions of reality.
And, more often than not, these communities are shaped around fear or hatred of other communities rather than shared values that uplift, encourage, and push us to become better people and neighbors.
In Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown writes,
“If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy that we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection.”
Social media and partisan news have presented us with a Devil’s Bargain: In exchange for damning information on our enemies and surface-level social validation, we’ll trade our contentment, mental well-being, and interpersonal connections.
The New Normal
We live in a day and age in which outrage is an end unto itself. To be aware is to be angry (or so we’re told).
The normalization of moral outrage combined with our increasingly apocalyptic political rhetoric, rapid-fire attention spans, and digital echo-chamber social spheres leads to an environment in which true victims and injustices are obscured and lost in the noise.
And it makes us lazy.
In The Eternal Current, Aaron Niequist writes,
“Many of us burn so much energy raging big systems – Washington, religion, political elites, the culture, secularism, and more – that we never get around to doing much of anything. The scale of the problem becomes paralyzing. And if we’re honest about it, raging against the system is a great place to hide.”
Outrage is easy to muster up within ourselves,
and easier to dismiss when it’s coming from someone with whom we disagree.
It’s also easier to get mad about something than it is to actually do anything about something.
If you find yourself in a constant state of agitation and disgust at “the other side” and are quick to consume and share media that confirms those emotions, you’re not helping anybody.
The truth is a particular news organization or political/religious ideology probably knows the right buttons to push to generate a predetermined reaction from you and nothing more.
No one is immune to this trap. Recognizing this truth is the first step toward doing and caring about something that actually matters.
Because here’s the deal: You can’t be angry about everything you’re told to be angry about.
You’ll burn out.
“Outrage fatigue” is a very real thing. Social psychologists warn that our constant exposure to outrage actually numbs our ability to empathize and is the quickest path toward feelings of bitterness and hopelessness.
At the end of the day, outrage is a natural byproduct of fear and loneliness.
We live at the cusp of a great social upheaval powered by new technology and corporate greed that takes advantage of some of our most primal and deeply-rooted vulnerabilities.
It may have been free to sign up for those social media accounts, but would any of us say they didn’t cost us anything?
The driving philosophy of social media is that YOU are the star of our own life and everyone else is just a supporting cast member. And the overarching message of our news cycle is that everything is awful and the only thing you can do is be mad about it.
And unless we untangle ourselves from these two pervasive and interconnected lies we’ll never be able to escape our own recursive narcissism loops and fear-based identity politics.
In his column for the New York Times titled, “How Loneliness Is Tearing America Apart,” sociologists David Brooks writes,
And there lies the challenge to each of us in a country suffering from loneliness and ripped apart by political opportunists seeking to capitalize on that isolation. Each of us can be happier, and America will start to heal, when we become the kind neighbors and generous friends we wish we had.”
One of the most freeing realizations is that acceptance that no one on social media is probably thinking about you. No one is eagerly awaiting your newest tweet or post.
Those Likes and red notification bubbles you so desperately crave are the results of nothing more than a thumb tap from the other side of someone else’s phone screen.
However, the social utility you offer someone’s life doesn’t have to be limited to a Like or a Favorite.
The best notification you can give someone is your physical presence, your listening ear, your supportive voice, and your helping hands.
Addendum: Digital Detox
Yeah, okay, you ask. But, now what?
I empathize with the question. My wife runs a wedding photography business that is dependent on a social media presence. And about ninety percent of my blog traffic comes from Facebook. Like many of you, the internet and social media are essential components to our professional lives.
Also, for many people – especially those in marginalized communities – social media presents the opportunity to find, connect, and support people outside of your local community. In other words, there are undeniably beautiful and practical aspects of new media and technology.
And that means everyone needs to tackle the next steps on this issue by their own merit.
For starters, I strongly recommend everyone picking up a copy of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. In the book, Newport lays out his “Philosophy of Digital Minimalism” like this:
“A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
For me, this meant a few specific steps:
- I left Twitter and deleted the app from my phone.
- I deleted the Facebook app from my phone and blocked the URL on my phone’s web browser.
- I set hard Screen Time limits on the Instagram app (10 minutes per weekday/30 minutes per weekend) and hid all Push Notifications.
- I try to leave my phone in the car during dates and outdoor adventures.
- I take one photo if I’m at a concert or public event and then put my phone away for the rest of the show.
- If we have friends over, I leave my phone in my bedroom.
- I unsubscribed from a majority of the Breaking News Alert push notifications.
- I don’t watch cable news or network television.
- I unsubscribe or unfollow news sites that appear to intentionally write and share stories designed to provoke or antagonize me. For a news alternative, I use Allsides.com, a nonpartisan news aggregator.
- I try to read from a spectrum of reputable news organizations (listed from most to least conservative): National Review, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The New York Times, & Washington Post.
(For the record, I still use Facebook to post and advertise my writings, but – as mentioned above – I’ve limited my ability to access the platform on-the-go and the time I spend on them. The Screen Time feature on the iPhone is most useful for this.)
In retrospect, I apologize for the clickbait nature of this post’s title. However, like anything that demands so much of our time and attention, it’s vital that we are at least aware of the negative side effects of indulgence.
For Newport, the value of abstaining from social media is rooted not in the abstinence itself, but in the time you can invest in other parts of your life you may have been neglecting.
Minimalism is all about knowing how much is enough in order to enjoy life to the fullest. In a world inundated with information overload, a resurgence of personal discernment and discipline might be what it takes to transform the world.