How Much of our Discord Is the Result of the “Engagement” Advert Revenue Model of Social Media?

Few would deny that social discord is rising. The proposed causes range from wealth/income inequality to the rise of polarizing political ideologies and the Trump presidency.

A few commentators are starting to question the role of social media in this dynamic, and specifically, the advertising based revenue model of social media. This advert-based revenue model is based on two principles:

1. If an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.

In other words, if you’re not paying for the service or content, then your personal information (harvested by Google, Facebook, et al.), your time online (i.e. your “engagement”) and the content you create and post for free (videos of your cute cat, expressions of outrage, etc.) are the products being sold to advertisers at a premium.

2. The more discord content sows, the more advert revenue it generates. In traditional media, audiences were measured by visitor impressions on websites, the number of web searches made for key words, the number of viewers of a TV program, the number of listeners to a radio station, and so on.

But Facebook has changed the advert-revenue model in several key ways.Facebook now seeks “engagement” rather than impressions, and it sells so-called “dark ads”, adverts that are targeted by the advertiser to very specific audiences, so that only the people in that audience see the paid content/advert.

Only three entities know who’s seeing the paid content/advert: Facebook, the advertiser and those targeted to receive the paid content/advert.

On the face of it, this seems fairly benign. A company selling Medicare plans might target Facebook users who are about to turn 65, for example, with paid content about Medicare plans or an advert for their services.

But these changes are not benign, as longtime correspondent GFB explains in his commentary on this article, How Facebook Rewards Polarizing Political Ads (via GFB):

Facebook has ditched the ‘conventional’ advertising metric for determining the value of advertising – ‘eyeballs’ viewing the material, i.e. ‘impressions’ – and instead uses their perverse and self-serving “engagement” model.

If your ad (your content) on Facebook generates users “engagement” (users like, hate, or share the ad or content) Facebooks spreads it to more users – because if the content is engaging, then users are staying on Facebook and are available to be shown more content.

The worst content for Facebook is content that is skipped over and ignored. And since Facebook can monitor that, that kind of content is fed out to users less and less.

So you have the ultimate circle – the more offensive and off-putting, the more “fake news” you make your paid content – the more people react to it (“engage” with it – reading it, and sending to other people who find it equally repellent or admirable as does the original viewer) the more the content appears system wide. Because in Facebook’s view, anything that keeps people on Facebook is a win, a chance to expose people to other paid content. Round and round it goes.

Other commentators are also recognizing the qualitative threat this new model poses to democracy, social discourse and the fabric of our daily lives, as evidenced by these two articles:

What Facebook Did to American Democracy

Smartphones Are Weapons of Mass Manipulation, and This Guy Is Declaring War on ThemWhat’s crucial to understand is that, from the system’s perspective, success is correctly predicting what you’ll like, comment on, or share. That’s what matters. People call this ‘engagement’.”

Meanwhile, concerns over the influence wielded by Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft is also rising: Why Tech Is Starting to Make Me Uneasy

Ask yourself: how much of the discord and distress that’s so evident in both social media and traditional media would diminish if everyone spent no more than 5 minutes daily on social media?

Extending the question to the entire media space: what if everyone spent no more than 30 minutes a day on any media, other than pure entertainment (listening to music, watching a movie, etc.)

In effect, corporations are now incentivized by the advert revenue model to sow as much discord and distress as possible, because all these negative emotions fuel “engagement.”

What’s especially perverse about the Facebook model is that ad blocking software won’t eliminate the paid content in your FB feed, nor will it identify which advertiser targeted you or why.

Then ask yourself this: how much better would you feel if you limited your time on social media to somewhere between zero and ten minutes daily?

Personally, I severely limit my time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. not because I have great self-discipline, but because I find more than a few minutes of social media feeds deranging and a time time sink I can’t afford.

They don’t make me feel better or more positive. Generally they make me feel the opposite: more disconnected from a deranging zeitgeist, less positive and less productive.

I doubt I’m unique in experiencing these negatives.

The goal of maximizing profits for shareholders by any means available incentivizes discord as the primary source of profits when adverts are the primary source of revenues in the addict-pusher model of “engagement”.

If this isn’t the acme of a politically and culturally self-destructive model of profit-maximization, then what is it?

Of related interest:

Are Facebook and Google the New Colonial Powers? (September 18, 2017)

Hey Advertisers: The Data-Mining Emperor Has No Clothes (September 15, 2017)

The New Facebook Buttons: Promote, Despise, Abandon (November 1, 2012)

800 Million Channels of Me (February 21, 2011)

Are You Loving Your Servitude Yet? (July 25, 2012)

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  • kimyo

    if one accepts that tptb is deliberately attempting to sow discord among americans, then why would it matter what percent of the effort is delivered by facebook or twitter?

    this type of article is like an in-depth analysis of the significance of the design of the boot stomping on your face.

    what matters: there is a boot stomping on your face. what doesn’t matter: it has a twitter logo on it.

  • thomas h

    Some people create and host web content, and form groups, just because they enjoy it.

    The smarter folk utilize free web space to do something culturally/scientifically useful. Not black/white…

  • Shiggity

    The first decade of the 21st century was the first decade in US history where the total amount of jobs did not grow for the first time.

    In 1998, US workers worked a total of 194 billion hours. In 1998 the US population was ~275 million.
    In 2013, US workers worked a total of 194 billion hours. In 2013 the US population was ~315 million.

    See the problem? Humans have literally ran out of enough work to do while at the same time wages didn’t go up much at all and the cost of living exploded.

    People sit around watching screens all day because they don’t have enough work to do and don’t have enough money to go out and spend.

    It’s a serious problem and the baby boomer leadership in the US has gone full head in sand mode.

  • ICFubar

    Google/youtube dominate the on line market because they provide the better search experience so far and reap the engagement data. If they continue to censor this may change and rapidly once the exit begins. What I find interesting is that some data from household shopping also shows up when on line in the form of ads for products, not so retail stores. The targeting of ads is likely seen as better bang for the dollar but how well this works I have no idea as from my perspective I interact with content but almost never bother to even look at ads, some so annoying they generate dislike for all the advertising that line the margins that I just tune out. Oddly, the shopping I do on line for supplies to do with an esoteric hobby have never generated any targeted ads and yet it is a fairly large wide ranging industry. I can’t comment on FB as I value my privacy over any over expanded connectivity and so have never taken an account. The fact vast amounts of data are harvested from the population is rather like the polling of the population’s mood. This ‘poll’ being available to tptb and not the public at large but by the reaction of tptb we can deduce what the general public consensus might be, all the manipulations accounted for.

  • Gary Youree

    I use google as my search engine, gmail, and have a FB account a little over a year old. So I guess they have me covered.
    I will be 60 this month and have gone years at a time without using any social media (10+ x2). Probably half the time home computers have been out I have not used email.
    Of course I remember when there were no home pc’s. Computers were huge tape driven machines seen on James Bond movies.

    I started a small one man wooden pallet recycling business in 1984 with the proverbial one pickup truck (1967 IHC) in 1984 at the age of 27.
    Until the end, when I tore down the mural I thought would never end, the first 20 years was a work of art. A masterpiece of efficiency – making tens of millions of dollars while supporting hundreds of Salvadoran and Guatemalan families by their refugee sons earning piece rate amounting to 1000.00 – 1500.00/week.
    Then I was awakened from the lie of the American dream by the end-stage capitalist collusion of those who make money with only money and in my case, easily corruptible local government. I could digress until this page was filled – but i wont. Computers.

    I was using Dome bookkeeping notebooks until 1989 when my new wife and a friend I had hired told me to get with the times and buy a computer.
    My wife and I took a Dos computer class at the college then set out to buy some computer stuff. I was completely ignorant of personal computers.
    Windows 3.1 was just out and i was looking at these screen savers and wondering how I was supposed to read this interface over Dos. I paid around 15k for 3 top of the line computers with Windows 3.1 and a flatbed scanner (2k if I remember). One PC had a modem and in conjunction with the scanner it made a really slow fax machine.
    I had all the battery backups and surge protectors but after a long evening where I finally got it in my head that the computer and software were two different things we went to bed and there was a big storm. I had unplugged everything – except the phone line. Everything was fried.
    My current insurance company paid up but then dropped me – with I guess the idea I would be a costly customer. I had just purchased the insurance that very day before. We were picked right back up by another who must have understood, “that is unlikely to happen again”. And they were right – it never happened again.

    Even though I have both a FB account, gmail, and use the google browser, I get very little bother with emails or ads aimed at me.
    I had not been on social media, even though i had a pc on my desk for over 20 years, since 99 – 2000 when I spent a little over a year day trading in the stock market. I would have no idea of what the company did but instead used several computers and roamed small stock buyer/seller websites like the Motley Fool. These chat rooms on some of these sites would be in real time and I soon identified the successful stock players. I would follow what they were doing.
    That was 17 years ago.
    I use my computer for the most part to learn and to try and find some truth in the news. I might spend a few weeks on cetaceans, make a folder, write a paper of my own ideas, and keep a list of links to the sites where i got the information. Then I will move on to the next subject of interest.

    After the 2000 election, 9/11 and the wars that followed, I formed an overall opinion but began to ignore the news and any form of social media.

    I gained a renewed interest in 2015 leading up to the 2016 election. I began doing some research with the plan of getting to the truth of whether or not there is control of the chaos. I signed up with FB with the idea of trying to understand what the next generation was thinking about, if there were others interested in the ruling class and what was being said about it, and alternative news sites. I was amazed at how the mainstream media had come under such corporate control.

    I followed some FB sites like Science and the Universe, some political sites, some political conspiracy sites, and the uncomfortable default site they set you up on with people you know and I guess have some of the same interests.

    I see the manipulation and divisions posted on the last site I mentioned and the political conspiracy sites. I believe FB itself has employees who post an abnormal amount of anti-muslim rhetoric. It is just stupid hate speech stuff that does not feel like a genuine person is posting it.
    I have seen a site that was anti-anti-9/11 conspiracy that I swear was ran by minimum wage government employees.
    Yes, I keep tape over my camera.

    I do not spend much money and very rarely seem targeted by ads directed at me. Of course i notice (and they are open about it) sites like youtube and netflix that determine your interests and direct you to documentaries or movies they think i will like.

    I am very much aware that a profile has been built about myself and is being updated – probably by bots. As I began a year long and continuing study of American history and those who hold the power and control I did feel uncomfortable posting my imo ideas, links to articles by Prof. John McMurtry, for example, showing that the US is by far the leading country in the killing of innocent civilians – and when something “subversive” I am posting about gets some interest and instant feedback from several individuals, which is rare, the discourse would suddenly be filled by what seemed to be the same poster with different names with posts declaring flat earth theory, conspiracy, or whatever – as if to disrupt.

    I read 1984 the first time when I was 10 years old. Except for the very disturbing part where Wiston is forced to accept the propaganda of the state, while in prison, just before his execution, we are fully there in that world.

    Why they want all the access to person information; what you think, where you are, etc. beyond advertising purposes is very disturbing. It does seem very much that they are, or they want us to think, that any collective subversive movement would and could be quickly put down.
    The feeling for me is that countries in the West are barely countries anymore. I feel like the elite are one global class of predators and the vast majority of us are herded into countries and allowed just enough so there is no revolt. But then who would know if there is a growing collective grievance?
    Who gives us a voice anymore.
    I have seen the media change like the climate during and since the election. The subset of the one percent; the Michael Moores, Bill Mayhers, etc. seemed to have abandoned either us or their ability to speak out on taboo issues.
    There clearly need to be some paradigm shifts to get us off the path we are on if we are to survive as a species.
    i feel like we will only have this window of time where the historical information and the obviousness of our situation will be available. The efficiency of honesty is very powerful but it seems to have been destroyed.
    It seems that our consciousness is being wasted or being manipulated by constantly reintroduced divisions into a cognitive dissonance.
    I am beginning to believe we are living in a world divided two species of humans; one, a predator psychopathic elite and the majority, a domesticated prey.
    I always believed consciousness was the only survival answer to a species that has dominated its environment and is competing with itself. We cannot survive moving in this direction and that should be obvious since consciousness shows us what we could have if we worked together for the common good and to continue down this path will lead to extinction.
    Clearly, there are no empires in space.