Your News Feed is Literally Destroying You

Most of you reading this will have discovered it through a link or a share through Facebook. Perhaps some through Twitter or LinkedIn. Others may have stumbled across it as a result of a Google search. Like this article, most of you get your news from those sources in that order.

According to Pew Research Centre, 87% of adults aged 18–29 use Facebook, 37% use Twitter, and 23% use LinkedIn. Facebook is used most frequently, with almost 70% of users reporting they visit the site daily, 48% of users check Facebook as soon as they wake up, and 79% of all adults who use just one social media site concede that Facebook is their sole social media outlet.

What this barrage of statistics is really saying is that because of the popularity of Facebook and other social media sites in our lives, our view of the world is largely warped by the news we receive through these forms of media.

This may not seem like a problem at first — after all, by being active on Facebook or Twitter, you stay on top of the pulse of your world, and being current and well-informed on the happenings around the world is heavily valued in our society. However, what most of us fail to recognize is that our news feeds are carefully constructed, not just by our tastes as interpreted by the algorithms employed by social media sites, but by the anatomy of online news outlets.

To understand how the online news economy works, first we need to understand the history of the newspaper.

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Early newspapers functioned as political bulletins printed by various political parties to publish their platforms and other items of interest to party members. Most of these newspapers had circulations of only a few thousand recipients, were not really functional as a “newspaper”, and their content was strictly informative and of the editorial fashion.

The first wave of true newspapers arrived in New York City during the 1830s in the form of The New York Sun and The New York Herald. Both of these papers relied on similar business models: there was no subscription — every paper was sold as a one-off item — and the way these papers were sold was by employing sensationalist headlines, gossip, and coverage of high society.

This type of journalism was called “Yellow Journalism”, typified by these papers’ use of: scary headlines of otherwise unimportant events, large pictures, faked interviews, pseudoscience, fake experts, and a focus on underdog against the system type stories.

In fact, one of the primary causes of the Spanish-American War of 1898 has been attributed to Yellow Journalism and the anti-Spanish propaganda contained in the newspapers in the months leading up to actual conflict, even though there was no real reason for a war in the first place.

A change in the journalism industry occurred when Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, introduced a radically different model of distribution. Instead of selling newspapers with sensationalist headlines and gossip, he introduced the subscription model.

For one cent per issue, an individual could purchase a subscription to the Times. The price had to be low enough to compete with the Yellow Journalism papers, otherwise the quality content would get lost in the sea of sensationalism. Since people purchased the Yellow Papers due to price and a lack of other options, Ochs sought to produce a paper whose value far exceeded that of the sensationalist Yellow Papers.

Gradually, Ochs’ focus on producing quality content — as evidenced by his slogan for the Times: “All the News That’s Fit to Print” — caught on, and thousands of imitators gradually formed.

Since an issue of a subscription-based paper has already been sold before it’s been printed, journalists did not have to rely on ridiculous headlines or celebrity gossip to sell papers; instead they could focus on quality content, intuitive reporting, and good writing.

Journalism began to become a respected and almost academic profession. Newspapers built followers on trustworthy content and quality reporting. This model would stay in place for most of the 20th century, but with the advent of online journalism, a reversion back to the Yellow Journalism tactics began.

Today, the bulk of our news comes from online blogs, and I’m not referring to amateur blogs like this one. I’m referring to BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Slate, Vice, etc.

Yellow Journalism papers needed to be sensationalist and controversial to sell individual papers, but accessing BuzzFeed’s listicles from your Facebook News Feed doesn’t cost you anything directly, so why have online blogs employed the same business tactics? Simple: these blogs all generate their revenue from ads, and the amount of money these ads generate for blogs is based on traffic to the site. More clicks = more money.

As soon as you click on a blog article, that blog has made money. If you click through a few more articles during your visit and spend more time on the site, even better. Facebook is designed to make users stay on the site as long as possible. No online blog, from BuzzFeed all the way to the BBC, is immune to this digital economic strategy.

How do they do it? Sensationalist terms are a very broad description and don’t really explain why we click on an article designed with Yellow Journalism tactics, so here are a few common tactics employed by headline creators to get you to click on an article, even if you decide to go back after having read for 5 seconds and been left disappointed.

A tactic used by both Yellow Journalism and modern blogs is to create something out of nothing. For example, remember the dad bod? The article linked to was among the first to “report” on the “craze” of the dad bod, which was ultimately just another example of how blogs create something out of nothing.

There is no reason for the dad bod to be in the news. There was no study done on it, no famous new diet that promoted it, there was no reason to create a new term out of thin air except to generate a new string of articles and create content.

Another way is by exploiting a psychological concept called the confirmation bias. The “tendency to search for or interpret information in way that leads to one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors” is routinely exploited by blogs, usually in the form of a poorly reported study or a nostalgic listicle.

We may already know that we’re 90s kids, a middle child, have mild OCD, and that we’re night owls, but clicking an article written by a 21 year old with a B.A. in communications that confirms one or more of those traits is incredibly satisfying for us.

The most common way blogs bait you into clicking on an article is by evoking an emotional response — the more intense, the better (in case you haven’t caught on, I purposely gave this article a sensationalist headline to illustrate this tactic).

According to a 2010 study by Wharton Professor Jonah Berger, the most accurate predictor of virality is anger followed by happiness. So, if a headline either makes you extremely happy or very angry, you’re more likely to click on it to reaffirm your happiness or see just how stupid the subject of the article is (and read the comments written by other readers who share you disgust and counter-arguments).

Don’t believe me? Go to Facebook or Twitter and click the first article that pisses you off, which should take all of 5 seconds. Scroll to the bottom and look at the comments. Most are negative, or there may be some bickering back and forth.

It doesn’t matter — the article’s subject matter is a pointless essay that doesn’t mean anything. The subject matter doesn’t matter. The article was conjured out of thin air and minted with a emotionally jarring title to get you and as many other people as possible to click on it. When people comment, their activity is shared on Facebook to bring even more traffic to article and more money in ad revenue to the blog.

This is the endless pattern that occurs with online media. Create content out of nothing or out of something as miniscule as a tweet or an Instagram post. Slap on an emotion-inducing headline. Write the article with an angle that can exploit the confirmation bias of your audience. It’s equal parts brilliant and horrifying at the same time.

Neither you nor I are immune to the effect even though we know the pattern; the only difference that being wise to online media tactics will make is that you are now more aware of the purpose of most articles that come across your news feed.

Despite the poor state that the news most of us read is in, there is still hope. We can learn from the underlying lessons the news teaches us, no matter what the source.

If we feel anger about a particular story, we should take a step back and ask ourselves why that is. Is it envy? Outrage? We need to positively identify why are we feeling that particular emotion about that particular subject. Perhaps by answering that question, we can use an otherwise pointless story to learn something more introspective.

We should also look to articles that we use to support a preconceived notion about ourselves and ask why we need the support of an article written by someone with no relevant credentials to be giving advice on our lives, and instead look to learn from the reason we are seeking that external validation in the first place.

And finally, consider the following:

“A flourishing life requires a capacity to recognize the times when the news no longer has anything original or important to teach us; periods when we should refuse imaginative connection with strangers, when we must leave the business of governing, triumphing, failing, creating or killing to others, in the knowledge that we have our own objectives to honour in the brief time still allotted to us.”

- The News: A User’s Manual, pp. 419

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The bulk of my inspiration for this article came from these three books. Give them a read!

The News: A User’s Manual (2014) — Alain de Botton

Trust Me: I’m Lying. Confessions of a Media Manipulator (2013) — Ryan Holiday

Contagious: Why Things Catch On (2013) — Jonah Berger

Director at Riiid Labs — an AI enablement company focused on better education for all.