Focusing on Engagement Above All Else Is Killing the Internet

The internet doesn't have a tech problem. It's just ruled by those who value profits over policy.
Adam Rowe

Just-released research from New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics indicates that Twitter's algorithms promote politicians when they are more likely to be ratioed.

In other words, Twitter prioritizes engagement solely for engagement's sake, above the actual value or impact of that engagement. It's a flaw, and one that the massive social platform Facebook dives headfirst into as well.

The tech solutions are obvious, but unless the higher-ups are forced to reshape their platforms, we'll keep promoting reactionaries beyond the atttention they'd otherwise receive, and far beyond what they deserve.

Anger Boosts Engagement

The new New York University study took a look at “ratioed” tweets, a term for when the direct retweets of a tweet (affirming the sentiment of the tweet) are outnumbered by the comments and quote-tweets (typically opposing that sentiment). Researchers tracked the most ratioed members of Congress.

The top two were democratic sentators Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (W. Va.), both known for regularly blocking popular Democratic measures, but the next 18 highest average ratioed accounts were for Republican members of Congress.

“It seems as if it should be possible for Twitter to change its algorithm so that it disfavors ratioed tweets, rather than amplifying them — if that is indeed what it is doing. Given that ratioed tweets are widely believed to generate division and outrage, such a shift could be a way to turn down the temperature on the social media platform,” the study's author wrote in the Washington Post.

It sure would be possible! It's not happening because Twitter wants engagement because engagement sells ads, and nothing boosts engagement like people getting mad online.

Facebook's own internal documents show many of its own researchers reaching similar conclusions, bluntly stating that the “mechanics of our platform are not neutral” in reference to the division stirred up by the like and share functions.

Despite this knowledge, the platforms are not changing. One Facebook staffer laid it out in another leaked comment: “Leadership overrides research based policy decisions to better serve people like the groups inciting violence today.”

Poor Policy is “Inciting Violence”

The impacts are real, too: Facebook was the most common way people discovered the far-right militia Oath Keepers, according to a leaked roster for the group.

Similarly, culture wars constantly pop up on Twitter for a few days before vanishing, frequently focusing on a single objectionable tweet or anecdote that drives millions of engagements to the person who posted it.

There's nothing keeping someone from inventing a fictional incident to boost their numbers, and, in fact, Twitter and Facebook's algorithms will reward them if they do.

Don't Dunk on People

Here's the part of the article where I'm supposed to offer a solution. There's an one obvious one, which is to stop complaining about people who are terribly wrong on the internet. Most of them want you to do that! Don't give them the oxygen. If you simply can't hold back, at least screenshot them rather than retweeted or responding directly.

But that's honestly not good enough, because the empty outrage machinery will keep chugging along for the most part. Any true fixes need to come from the giant social platforms themselves, and they have no incentive to do so. Our best bet on that front is likely government oversight, which may or may not happen.

Instead — and as a fan of the internet in general, it pains me to admit this — it might be time for us all to collectively consider logging off of big social media sites for meaningful amounts of time. The overvaluation of engagement isn't just spurring on bigots and paving a path towards systemic prejudice, it's warping the perspective of everyone who uses it.

Maybe building your own website and never posting anything on Twitter or Facebook can help reverse the damage to your own personal perspective. But the internet is largely the biggest social media platforms at this point and sadly, it turns out everyone's mom back in 2005 was right: The internet really is rotting our brains.

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Adam is a writer at Tech.co and has worked as a tech writer, blogger and copy editor for more than a decade. He's also a Forbes Contributor on the publishing industry, for which he was named a Digital Book World 2018 award finalist. His work has appeared in publications including Popular Mechanics and IDG Connect, and he has an art history book on 1970s sci-fi coming out from Abrams Books in 2022. In the meantime, he's hunting own the latest news on VPNs, POS systems, and the future of tech.

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