“I am an immigrant living alone in Toronto. My real estate broker (xx) refused to share with me half of the commission he promised,” said a post on Chinese social media a few years ago. “This money driven bustard has lost his morality!”
“Thank you for exposing him,” posted a follower. “He should get ashamed once a week so that no body would like to seek his service!”
What a story! Another unethical business man who ripped off and mistreated a vulnerable client – a marginalized immigrant like myself! It reminded me of my bad experiences in the past – from being cheated at the corner store to taken advantaged of by a telephone provider! Sympathized with the victim poster and outraged towards the realtor, I hearted the post instantly without giving a second thought, feeling justified, relieved and empowered. Mission was accomplished, and mandate fulfilled! My voice was heard!
By clicking on the “heart” button, I became one of those who sat behind a computer and began furiously type away, expressing my resentment towards a person who had not given any chance to defend himself in front of an angry public. I also joined a group of anonymous internet bloggers who experienced a thrill of shaming and punishing those deemed as bad apples, and who had turned social media into a perfect outlet of anger and outrage.
As the “heart” count went up a notch after my click, it sounded a loud beep and flashed a red light, amplifying the personal reward to the poster and making her dopamine level soar. You can imagine that as every sound and light delivers a moment of thrill to her, it would turn her smartphone into a slot machine in her pocket!
But unbeknown to me at the time, and possibility the poster, that we had felt into the trap of social media algorithms whose business profits rely on tapping into the explosive anger of audiences like myself. It turned out that we were used and manipulated as money making tool for the social media website!
As various online platforms compete for public attention to maximize advertising dollars, their algorithms promote content that is mostly likely to be shared. According to studies by social scientists, posts expressing strong moral emotions, such as outrage have the highest sharing values on the websites and are eagerly embraced by their content marketing campaigns. A NYU study found that every moral sentiment in a post increases its likelihood of being shared by 20 per cent!
Under the website’s marketing campaign, the number of clicks and impressions are directly linked to advertising revenues. As such, in their relentless efforts to chase the bottom line, users’ resentment is hijacked and taken as hostage for money. The online platforms would select the outrage posts – including the heart button I clicked – as the most shareworthy content to be distributed on the site，regardless of its social and legal impact or whether it is even true!
As the post of grievance quickly gained traction, an avalanche of support and backlash ensued, creating an online trial in a public domain without giving the named person a chance to defend himself or present his arguments. Publishing an unverified one side story disrespects for facts, a practice against journalism principles and the basis of democratic values.
The realtor said through an independent media interview that he didn’t breach a promise as the online post alleged. He had promised to give the complainant half of the commission, provided he had collected commission from the builder. At the time of the online backlash, the agent had not got any commission yet.
The shocking discoveries shook me to my core, as I deeply regretted my irrational reactions and impulsive anger. I have since then joined a grown public trend that increasingly recognizes the dark side of social media and its damaging effects on society and decides to avoid it altogether. At the same time, I feel sorry for those who continuously punch the keyboard with anger, allowing their naked emotions to be exploited by the websites’ business agenda.
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