Tobias Rose-Stockwell, author of Outrage Machine, clues us in to how social media platforms manipulate emotions to keep us scrolling and riles us up. We talk about how the internet influences our beliefs and the pursuit of truth over winning arguments.
Bonfire Digital Wellness has a diverse team of seasoned, compassionate school counselors, ready to coach your teen. Check it out today and take advantage of a 1-month FREE trial: BonfireDW.org/talkingtoteens
Full Show Notes
It’s hard to deny that public discourse, especially online, has taken an ugly turn over the past decade. Social media sites, which we all once heralded as revolutionary tools for connection and change, now seem to breed anxiety, arguments, and even despair.
So what happened? Is there something inherently wrong with us, or have these sites changed over time in ways we haven’t fully grasped?
This week, we’re here with writer and media researcher Tobias Rose-Stockwell to investigate the psychological underpinnings of sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Tobias is the author of Outrage Machine: How Tech Amplifies Discontent, Disrupts Democracy, and What We Can Do About It.
In his work, Tobias has uncovered how social media sites have increasingly capitalized on innate quirks in human psychology to keep us outraged, divided, and always scrolling for more.
The Science of “Doomscrolling”
You may have found yourself getting sucked into heated arguments and disturbing news stories online, unable to look away even when you want to. As it turns out, this phenomenon called “doomscrolling” is no accident.
As Tobias explains, human brains have evolved to rapidly take note of potential threats and dangers. We’re primed to focus our attention on the outrageous, salacious, and emotional parts of our environment — likely because paying attention to hazards helped early humans survive.
Social media sites have now wired themselves to tap into these psychological instincts. Features like personalized news feeds surface the most emotional and provocative content first, since data shows we’re most likely to engage with those posts. The results? We can’t peel our eyes away from our feeds, even when what we’re seeing stresses us out.
Designed for Division
Outrage and disagreement may keep us glued to our screens, but they’re also highly divisive. So how do sites incentivize us to spar?
As Tobias describes, social media platforms highlight content that drives “meaningful social interactions” — comments, shares, likes, and other measurable forms of engagement. As a result, posts showcasing arguments and moral outrage tend to get boosted to the top of our feeds.
We’re also psychologically primed to take sides when we witness fights unfolding and controversy brewing. Tobias explains that even if the topic itself doesn’t affect us, we feel inclined to pick a team, stake our claim online, and stand our ground.
Meanwhile, the platforms continue serving up divisive content, because that’s what keeps pulling us back in.
Escaping the Outrage Machine
If social media sites structurally pit us against each other, is there any hope for nuanced public discourse? How might we escape from the outrage machine?
As Tobias advises, simply being aware of how these sites manipulate us is an important first step. When we understand the psychological hooks they use to capture our attention, we can be more conscious about how and when we engage.
Beyond that, Tobias offers tips for having healthier dialogues both on and offline. He advises focusing conversations around shared truths rather than fixating on disagreements. Ground rules can also help, like assuming good intentions in those we speak with.
If you found this glimpse into the outrage machine illuminating, be sure to check out the full episode. Tobias offers so many more insights that help explain the current landscape of social media. Understanding what’s behind the curtain is the first step to using these sites more deliberately, and combatting their most toxic effects.