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Behavioural Design Digest
April 10th, 2019

How populists poison the public debate

I wanted to write this post for quite some time. But somehow I resented doing it. Maybe because it’s beyond the scope of ordinary daily life observations. Perhaps because it’s a bit contentious. Or maybe because I wasn’t sure about how to blend several trains of thoughts in one argument. 

Here’s what I want to argue: There’s an invisible algorithm running underneath the public debate that rewards bad intentions and outrage. Populists correctly understand this algorithm, giving them a competitive edge on traditional politicians. 

Let’s begin with a couple of observations. 20 years ago, when I was 24, it was unimaginable to us that the future was going in any other direction than the direction of liberal democracies. I remember reading Francis Fukuyama’s book “The End of History” in which he argued that liberal democracy was the logical endpoint of historical progress. Boy, was he wrong. 

There are all kinds of reasons why the clock towards more democracy seems to be turning back. Probably one of the biggest reasons is that free-market capitalism has succeeded in transferring so much wealth from the many to the few, that we started to feel insecure about the future: Will we have a Job? Will we have a decent pension?  Will our children have a future? Could it be that these politicians who promised us for decades to take care of us, were actually just working to create laws to please the rich?

And at the same time, there’s so much instability and dangers in the world that are being thrown into our living rooms us through our screens: refugees, climate disaster, the imperial plans from China, Russia, the unpredictability of the USA, etc. 

This context is a perfect cocktail for fear mongering: If you can capture that anxiety, you can turn it into electoral gold. And turns out that fear-mongering has a huge competitive edge. 

Both the algorithms underlying our digital life and the algorithms underlying the media business model favour outrage above optimism. 

Tristan Harris, an ex-Googler, who quit his job one day because he couldn’t live anymore with how Big Tech is using psychological manipulation to get people hooked to their screens, was one of the first ones to figure out how the hijacking of our minds is taking place. Simply said, whether you are on Facebook or on Youtube, the algorithms have figured out that extreme content and outrage is the best predictor for more engagement. “Engagement” of course is a newspeak term for addiction. The Google and Facebook algorithms constantly try to prioritise or suggest content that tries to push your outrage and indignation buttons. If you want to learn how the Russian’s “Internet Research Agency” (again: newspeak for psychological warfare agency) weaponised this insight to its extreme consequences, just listen to this mindblowing podcast episode of the Sam Harris Making Sense Podcast with Renée DiResta, who did extensive research on how the manipulation took place. 

The algorithms underlying media are not so much driven by technology. They’re more like a driving force that follows directly from the business model. Media Companies figured out a long time ago that outrage is incredibly useful for the business model. “If it bleeds, it leads”, is the leading mantra. It’s no coincidence that Trump has been very positive for the bottom-line of all media. He may be talking about fake media, but that’s just a game. He needs the media to grow. And they endlessly give it to him. No questions asked. 

The populist edge: outrage

So this is my hypothesis: The reason why there’s such a surge in populism everywhere is that their outrage has a significant competitive edge. It attracts media attention, and it favours the recommendation algorithms of Youtube and Facebook. Liberals are not hard-wired to play this game. So we lose. We don’t feel the urge to continually poison or Facebook feed with anger and resentment. We want to believe that the game is not rigged. That we’re dealing with players, who are playing by the same rules. We think we’re having a dialogue with our opponents but turns out that they are not talking to us, but they're using our conversation as a stage to speak to their base. We like to believe that facts matter, but we can’t figure out why our facts don’t matter in a universe where a single anecdote can be presented as sufficient evidence of how much the truth is on their side. Some far-right populists go as far as arguing that the Christchurch shooter is the evidence that people are so threatened by Islam that it’s logical that they eventually grab their guns. There’s just no limit to the shamelessness with which they keep feeding the algorithms for more clicks, more attention and more outrage. 

How to stop this madness

It's simple: we will need to make decency great again. We need radical moderates. People who are willing to defend liberal values with passion and conviction. Uncompromising and with a desire to pick a fight. We need to start to fight dirty. And need to have fun at it. It's against everything we stand for as optimists, but if we want to win a rigged game, we need to work with the media algorithms and the digital algorithms. We have to stop being boring and stop being measured. They will adore us for that. 

Your help needed: Who do we need to invite as speaker?

On Friday September 20th we will host our second edition of Behavioural Design Fest. Last year we had an amazing event with amazing speakers, who deconstructed how influence works in areas ranging from game design, politics, hospitality, happiness, product design, sports, attention and terrorism. 

Now we're wondering: do you have a speaker suggestion for us for this edition? Who would we invite? Who's the best kept secret in talking about designing citizen behaviour, employee behaviour and customer behaviour? Share your suggestion with in return for eternal karma. 

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That's all for this week, we hope to catch you next week!

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