Rage against the machine (that produces the rage)

Love this fantastic Scott Alexander post on why the way the internet is structured/connected today is so conducive to amplifying those issues which most divide us. In retrospect, it should be no surprise at all that 2014 was a peak year for outrage, and it's not clear how it gets better.

The University of Virginia rape case profiled in Rolling Stone has fallen apart. In doing so, it joins a long and distinguished line of highly-publicized rape cases that have fallen apart. Studies often show that only 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations are false. Yet the rate for allegations that go ultra-viral in the media must be an order of magnitude higher than this. As the old saying goes, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

The enigma is complicated by the observation that it’s usually feminist activists who are most instrumental in taking these stories viral. It’s not some conspiracy of pro-rape journalists choosing the most dubious accusations in order to discredit public trust. It’s people specifically selecting these incidents as flagship cases for their campaign that rape victims need to be believed and trusted. So why are the most publicized cases so much more likely to be false than the almost-always-true average case?

I've been working my way through Geoffrey Miller's Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (a third of the way through, it's excellent thus far), and one of the things he emphasizes is that when we purchase goods as signals, the higher the cost of the signal the stronger the signal.

So how does this apply when it comes to signaling on moral dilemmas? The same, it turns out.

A rape that obviously happened? Shove it in people’s face and they’ll admit it’s an outrage, just as they’ll admit factory farming is an outrage. But they’re not going to talk about it much. There are a zillion outrages every day, you’re going to need something like that to draw people out of their shells.

On the other hand, the controversy over dubious rape allegations is exactly that – a controversy. People start screaming at each other about how they’re misogynist or misandrist or whatever, and Facebook feeds get filled up with hundreds of comments in all capital letters about how my ingroup is being persecuted by your ingroup. At each step, more and more people get triggered and upset. Some of those triggered people do emergency ego defense by reblogging articles about how the group that triggered them are terrible, triggering further people in a snowball effect that spreads the issue further with every iteration.

Why did the Michael Brown case explode on the internet and not one of the hundreds of other cases of police killing unarmed black people each year?


I propose that the Michael Brown case went viral – rather than the Eric Garner case or any of the hundreds of others – because of the PETA Principle. It was controversial. A bunch of people said it was an outrage. A bunch of other people said Brown totally started it, and the officer involved was a victim of a liberal media that was hungry to paint his desperate self-defense as racist, and so the people calling it an outrage were themselves an outrage. Everyone got a great opportunity to signal allegiance to their own political tribe and discuss how the opposing political tribe were vile racists / evil race-hustlers. There was a steady stream of potentially triggering articles to share on Facebook to provoke your friends and enemies to counter-share articles that would trigger you.


If campaigners against police brutality and racism were extremely responsible, and stuck to perfectly settled cases like Eric Garner, everybody would agree with them but nobody would talk about it.

If instead they bring up a very controversial case like Michael Brown, everybody will talk about it, but they will catalyze their own opposition and make people start supporting the police more just to spite them. More foot-shooting.

Horrifying, in some ways, because this model of signaling implies that the issues that divide us most will continue to get the most traction in communities we spend time on.

In some rare cases, like certain subreddits, a certain groupthink or narrowness/homogeneity of audience may permit some controversial content to remain a harmonious gathering rather than a lightning rod of verbal warfare.

However, more likely that divisive issues are the ones that go viral most quickly on the social networks we spend time on. Even the ways they are designed can tilt the “incentive gradient” towards combat.

Alexander points to Tumblr as one example.

Tumblr’s interface doesn’t allow you to comment on other people’s posts, per se. Instead, it lets you reblog them with your own commentary added. So if you want to tell someone they’re an idiot, your only option is to reblog their entire post to all your friends with the message “you are an idiot” below it.

Whoever invented this system either didn’t understand memetics, or understood memetics much too well.

What happens is – someone makes a statement which is controversial by Tumblr standards, like “Protect Doctor Who fans from kitten pic sharers at all costs.” A kitten pic sharer sees the statement, sees red, and reblogs it to her followers with a series of invectives against Doctor Who fans. Since kitten pic sharers cluster together in the social network, soon every kitten pic sharer has seen the insult against kitten pic sharer – as they all feel the need to add their defensive commentary to it, soon all of them are seeing it from ten different directions. The angry invectives get back to the Doctor Who fans, and now they feel deeply offended, so they reblog it among themselves with even more condemnations of the kitten pic sharers, who now not only did whatever inspired the enmity in the first place, but have inspired extra hostility because their hateful invectives are right there on the post for everyone to see.

I don't see this as much on Tumblr because the ones I follow don't tend to traffic in this type of stuff, but the design observation still holds.

I see it more often on Facebook. Someone signals their absolute affiliation with one side of a controversial issue. Since there is no dislike button, to disagree with that person someone has to post a reply, and thus begins the time-honored comment thread joust to exhaustion in which neither side changes the other's opinions but instead entrenches even more deeply in their fortress of opinion.

It happens on Twitter, too, but the situation there is often more dire because of character limits and the difficulty of following conversation on that platform. The discussion gets splintered across multiple tweets such that it's impossible for all but Twitter experts to piece the sequence of verbal argument back into one coherent thread, let alone understand each side's arguments.

Moloch – the abstracted spirit of discoordination and flailing response to incentives – will publicize whatever he feels like publicizing. And if they want viewers and ad money, the media will go along with him.

Which means that it’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship case for fighting police brutality and racism is the flagship case that we in fact got. It’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship cases for believing rape victims are the ones that end up going viral. It’s not a coincidence that the only time we ever hear about factory farming is when somebody’s doing something that makes us almost sympathetic to it. It’s not coincidence, it’s not even happenstance, it’s enemy action. Under Moloch, activists are irresistably incentivized to dig their own graves. And the media is irresistably incentivized to help them.

Lost is the ability to agree on simple things like fighting factory farming or rape. Lost is the ability to even talk about the things we all want. Ending corporate welfare. Ungerrymandering political districts. Defrocking pedophile priests. Stopping prison rape. Punishing government corruption and waste. Feeding starving children. Simplifying the tax code.

But also lost is our ability to treat each other with solidarity and respect.

Alexander's piece is a long one, but it's a must read. We live in the golden age of trolling.