Social Media Has Turned Us Into Algorithm Fuel for the World's Biggest Assholes
How social media has ruined everything and all the nothing you can do about it.
Hi all—today’s essay took a while. For some reason, the internet doesn’t like feeding me information about how awful the internet is. Weird. I’m onto you internet. Anyway. This week I had an article about submitting fiction in Becky Tuch’s Lit News Mag Round Up. Also, my brother released a new game this week called ‘Something Is Wrong With the Chickens’—”Bryson Foods, Inc has taken everything from us. We are Chickens. We are Eldritch Horrors. Make. Bryson. Pay.” What else do you need to know? Check it out.
Many years ago, I worked as the content director for a—let’s say—public relations agency.
We had a department dubbed “The Troll Room.” We created content, sent the links to the troll room, and shut our eyes.
Here is what happened next:
Six or seven employees, using dozens of accounts, viciously attacked each other in the comments. Half praised our content, half tore it apart—they liked, disliked, bashed, praised, shared, and created as much controversy as possible.
With so much blood in the water, invariably, hundreds—sometimes thousands—of real people got drawn into the fray (Reddit was particularly easy to manipulate).
We were small. There were others—bigger agencies who spent over $10,000+ promoting a single piece of content, with massive Troll Rooms, filled with employees who had mastered the art of creating “viral” content—mastered the art of being a bucket of assholes.
Rumors flew, like the one about a cartel of high school kids in California you could pay to do the same work, or the one about a guy who, for $9,000, would hack the algorithms for you.
Because of this, it wasn’t hard to understand—and roll my eyes at—the way the media reported on Russia’s election “meddling” in 2016. They portrayed it as a highly-sophisticated effort to undermine American democracy. How dare they say that Hillary Clinton had butt spiders! Those sneaky Russians. What could we have done? Not share?
In reality, all they did was acknowledge what Americans refuse to: the internet is one big burlap sack full of wet cats.
Controversy sells. Reality is relative.
And the Trolls knew it. At times, they came out with some truly heinous shit to promote a piece of content. We’d say, “That’s too far—you can’t make a rape joke about Elon Musk shooting a car into space.” But they didn’t understand. They lived on the internet. They took bubble baths in rape jokes.
They couldn’t grasp the concept that even though their accounts were fake, even though it was just a marketing tactic, we still found the joke morally reprehensible. And by the looks on their faces, you could tell exactly what they thought:
‘You poor sweet little lamb—it’s the world that is morally reprehensible.’
Later, when I worked in social media management, I learned about bot-buying, fake influencers, algorithm hacks, and all the other dirty nonsense behind the scenes. The more I learned, the more it felt as if I’d popped the hood on my car, expecting to find an array of intricately interconnected pipes and wires, and instead found an orgy of gnomes telling me to fuck myself.
I even worked as a “ghost” for some influencers. (You think you’re slipping into that hot influencer’s DMs? Nope. Just me in my underwear. Panties, if I woke up frisky.). I’ve also done this sort of work for CEOs and corporations as well. It’s exhausting.
I didn’t start actively using social media for myself until I was thirty. As a ‘content creator,’ I felt it couldn’t be avoided. I needed it. How could I get anywhere without a “presence,” without “influence”?
I dove headfirst into the gnome orgy. I thought: Fuck these people. I can do this without a Troll Room, without funds, without betraying my principles. I can promote myself! Create a following!
I read all the how-to articles. I felt like a line cook at a restaurant where I’d shit in the stew only to visit that restaurant later with a resigned, “Well, a man’s gotta eat, right?”
I thought, still, if I could go viral organically, maybe? Unlikely—not impossible. But “going viral” is not what people think—I’ve had dozens of articles read by 100,000+ people, and I’ve got a whopping 1,300 Twitter followers.
You need pandemic levels of virality (more than once) to gain the attention of an agency (or be able to hire one) that will pour strategy and money into making your work go viral again, and again.
Or, be born into an upper-middle-class family with the time, good connections, and funds for analytics tools and growth software, to grind your way into a niche.
For most of us, it is a pipe dream full of crack that keeps us coming back for more–getting dumber, twitchier, and poorer along the way.
Okay—so it’s rough for the individual, but maybe it did humanity some good?
Brought us together as a global community?
people associated with foreign governments, without admitting who they are, take extreme positions in social media posts with the deliberate goal of sparking division and conflict. These extreme posts take advantage of the social media algorithms, which are designed to heighten engagement, meaning they reward content that provokes a response.
Gave us a metric to gauge what most people care about?
Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot.
When you look at pros/cons list for social media—the pros are mostly made up of our ability to connect over long distances or get information—two things we don’t need social media for. The cons? FOMO, depression, abuse, cyberbullying, self-image issues, and rejecting ads for your grandma’s OnlyFans page.
So, at some point, we’ve got to ask: is it all worth it?
Does the Arab Spring outweigh genocide in Myanmar? (Especially when you consider that social media’s role in the Arab Springs was at best only part of the story, at worst, a debunked myth, blown out of proportion by social media companies.)
Is being able to see a clip of your niece's birthday party worth the 41% chance that she will be harassed on the same platform at some point in her life? (More-so when you consider that 72% of victims of harassment are women).
Is knowing where your friend ate lunch worth a stalker knowing the same thing?
Is the ability of knitters to find others who knit worth the ability of racists to find others who commit hate crimes. (In ever-increasing amounts).
Are the yuk-yuks from reading a retweeted weed joke by Elon Musk worth the dismantling of democracy?
Is the ability to judge the fashion sense of strangers worth the Chinese government turning social media into a social credit system?
It isn’t hard to see where this is going–with the rise of autocrats around the world, we’re essentially acting as guinea pigs for the ultimate tool of oppression. Jason Stanley has a great summation of how a fascist government controls people in this interview with VOX:
“Fascist politics is about identifying enemies, appealing to the in-group (usually the majority group), and smashing truth and replacing it with power.”
What better way to identify enemies, appeal to groupthink, smash truth, and replace it with power than having a system designed to find you, know you, and feed you information. We’re salting ourselves on the way to a cannibal convention.
And if you believe even half of this stuff, you might then ask, wait? Why are we on social media?
Well—it reaffirms our biases, warps our perception of the world to fit what we already believe, and has proven more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes by activating the reward centers of the brain.
And, rather than seeing all this as a problem, it’s been treated as a marketing opportunity, political strategy, and toolbox for authoritarian regimes.
We have all become algorithm fuel for the world’s biggest assholes.
But hey–those memes tho.
Don’t forget to share this around on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!
I hate having to sift through articles clicking hyperlinks to do my own research on something I read about. So, I’ve pulled them all out here, along with other articles I used in researching this piece—you know, in case your nightmares haven’t been doing it for you these days.
Inside Facebook Jan. 6 Violence Fueled Anger, Regret Over Missing Warning Signs
How Much of the Internet Is Fake? Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually.
Radicalization pipelines: How targeted advertising on social media drives people to extremes
Researchers asked people worldwide about divisiveness. Guess where U.S. ranked
Majority of news consumers see “fake news” as a big problem today
With Social Media Disinformation, What — and Who — Should We Be Afraid Of?
How the Web Distorts Reality and Impairs Our Judgement Skills
Social Media Companies Collect So Much Data Even They Can't Remember All The Ways They Surveil Us
China's 'social credit' system ranks citizens and punishes them with throttled internet speeds and flight bans if the Communist Party deems them untrustworthy
Social media helps reveal people’s racist views – so why don’t tech firms do more to stop hate speech?
U.S. internet users who have experienced cyber bullying 2021
In Saudi Arabia, Twitter Has Become a Tool to Crack Down on Dissent
The truth about Twitter, Facebook and the uprisings in the Arab world
A Genocide Incited on Facebook, With Posts From Myanmar’s Military
I love it when you get angry:)) isn't that why we're all on substack, hiding away from the feed?