This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions.
David: [00:00:00] Welcome to Outrage Overload. A science podcast about outrage and lowering the temperature. This is episode 17.
If there were an anti outrage movement, our guest today would be a founding member. When I was initially researching for this podcast, before I even knew I would be starting a [00:01:00] podcast, I came across an article from 2017 titled, this is How Your Fear and Outrage, or Being Sold for Profit. In fact, I quoted from this article on the very first episode of the show, the world feels more dangerous.
Our streets seem less safe. The assault on our values is constant. The threats feel real. The enemy is out there. Just check your feed, end quote. And I’ve been trying to get him on the show ever since. Here’s journalist Max Fisher because we
Rose-Stockwell: know that outrage is a sentiment that the platforms really reward.
If you have any kind of post on any kind of platform with outrage in it, the system will pick that out and it will shove that in front of huge numbers of people because it knows that’s a sentiment that will get other people to engage with you. That will then get you to engage in turn, and everyone spends more
David: time on the platform.
The problem isn’t just that the constant diet of outrage has a negative impact on our mental health, which it certainly does. It’s much worse than that. Sure, it makes us angry, but worse, it erodes trust and can create a sense of moral superiority and [00:02:00] othering. It’s a misrepresentation of reality that we actually find addicting.
It’s a downward spiral of hate and resentment that makes it difficult to have productive conversations at best and can lead to violence at
Rose-Stockwell: worst. Tempers flare as protesters face off over how schools teach gender and sexuality in class, leading to fist fights, shouting matches, and arrests. KTLA five s.
John Lio is live in Glendale tonight with a look at what fueled the outrage. John,
uh, sheriff Micah. All clear now, but earlier today. That’s right. What a mess out here. Hundreds of people swarmed the parking lot here outside the Glendale Unified School District Board meeting. Some of them did get violent and police arrested. Three people after fights broke out and some refused police orders to disperse.
David: Outrage and our addiction to it represents a grave threat to democracy. We find it easy to see this in others, particularly those on the other side, but difficult to see it in ourselves. Outrage is [00:03:00] an organizing tool, but when we’re overloaded, it creates confusion. The true enemy of democracy, accusations and confusion destroys the ability to coordinate.
It destroys trust. When people are confused, they’re less likely to be able to work together effectively. We don’t know who to believe. We can’t solve problems. All we can do is be outraged. But what if I told you that there is hope? Amidst the chaos, there are emerging voices offering ideas on how we can improve our relationship with the Outrage machine, and that’s what we’re going to talk about on this episode of the Outrage Overload Podcast.
I’m your host, David Beckermeyer, and our guest today is Tobias Rose Stockwell, a writer, designer, technologist, and media researcher whose work has been featured in the Atlantic Wired NPR r, the bbc, and on cnn. His brand new book is Outrage Machine, how Tech Amplifies Discontent and Disrupts Democracy, and What We Can Do about It.
Together we’ll examine the historical [00:04:00] context of societal stability and the shifts that have led us to this current climate of anger and polarization. We’ll explore the role of media, including social media platforms in fueling outrage, and examine the consequences it has on our mental health and social fabric.
But it doesn’t end there. Rose Stockwell will also share thought-provoking insights into how we can harness technology and reshape our online spaces to promote tolerance, understanding and constructive dialogue. So if you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by the constant stream of outrage or you’re simply curious about the impact it has on our society, this episode is for you.
So let’s hear from Tobias Rose Stockwell and learn about his fascinating new book. For right
David: I, I have to say that, um, you know, I, I used a quote from one of your articles in my very first episode. Uh, that was with Peter, ditto on political sectarianism, and I’ve been trying to get you on the show for a while. So when you were able to schedule this I was, I was ecstatic. So thanks so much for, for making time to come on.
Rose-Stockwell: Thanks for having me. Really excited to be here.
David: So the book is Outrage Machine. That’s a term we actually use on the podcast a fair bit. Uh, the book is Outrage Machine, um, how Tech Amplifies Discontent and Disrupts Democracy, and what we can do about it. And, and it is a terrific book. So, uh, it’s really well researched.
You know, it was kind of a tech nerd guy. I, it brought back a lot of memories going through some of those parts in there. Um, I, I really enjoyed that part of it, but, but I don’t think you have to be a tech nerd to, to like the book. I mean, it flows well. Got a lot of interesting, uh, information of course, and a lot of backstory and some cool illustrations.
You know what, I, I think it’s a nice easy read. It, it [00:06:00] flows well. And it’s, there’s a lot in there, so we’re not gonna be able to cover it all in, in this show. But, but I do encourage anybody that’s listening to this show and likes the stuff we talk about on here, you’re definitely gonna wanna check out this book.
I mean, the references alone are like a terrific resource. Um, in fact, I, I think I’ll you be going through there and trying to find a whole bunch of papers and people to talk to, so I wanted to thank you for, for doing this work. Thank
Rose-Stockwell: you. Uh, yeah, thanks for that. And, and, uh, yeah, shout out to my, my research team that I worked with, uh, on all of those references.
That was certainly a, a heavy lift. So, uh, but I’m really appreciative for the, for the read and the, and the, and the commentary on it. Yeah, it’s a big, it was a big project many, many years in the making, so thank you. Yeah,
David: you could definitely tell that that was a lot of work. I, I do little intros as a short, uh, at the beginning of episodes, and I’m, I’m scouring the net for clips.
That alone feels like a huge resource, so, you know, and that’s a. Two minute clip or something. Right. So yeah, absolutely. It’s a huge amount of work. So there’s sort of a through line, uh, in this book that, uh, is something [00:07:00] I talk about a lot. I’m sure listeners are sort of tired of hearing about it, but it’s, it’s sort of the, we have met the enemy and it’s us, the, uh, uh, and you know, it, it, and a lot of times we attribute things to like, there’s bad actors and that’s what’s messing everything up.
And a lot of times it’s kind of us, you know? So maybe you can chat. Tell us about that a little bit.
Rose-Stockwell: Yeah, so I, I think, uh, you know, one of the primary issues that we face right now is, uh, just a, a lack of recognition of how, uh, how easy it is, um, for us to be. Trapped or, or to default into some of these, uh, these kind of tribal, um, impulses that we have.
Um, you know, I’m very familiar on the, on this show and, uh, you talk about it on a regular basis. But, uh, but we are, you know, we’re very groupish creatures and, um, you know, if the internet has done one thing for us in the last 10 years, it has illustrated that it’s very easy to find [00:08:00] the triggers. And, uh, and, and buttons to press to, uh, to cause us to default into these, these, uh, uh, uh, identity groups that are so, uh, fundamental to who we are.
Um, so, uh, yeah, so, so yeah, you, in the process of research, researching this book, I, I spent a lot of time with different academics and a lot of time with different, uh, people to, to, uh, that have studied these, wor these particular issues and tried to. Collapse, the most important kind of fundamental parts of our failure mode when it comes to, uh, this us versus them disposition.
Um, and, uh, and try to make that something that’s really digestible and approachable. Um, you know, I think one of the things that is, it, it’s maybe hard for us to remember is that there was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago in which, uh, For instance, uh, there wasn’t a red in a Blue America. I can remember the very first, uh, the very first, uh, uh, pre presidential election that I, uh, that I [00:09:00] voted in, um, which was Bush v Gore.
Um, Uh, some of the, that was, that was the first election they used the, the color coding maps, uh, for, for, you know, Republican, Democrat. And actually some of the networks had it flipped. So blues were, blues, were Republicans and, and, uh, and reds were Democrats. Um, uh, because there just wasn’t that kind of natural language around.
Around this, this, this, uh, inherent divide in our politics. Um, and we, you know, as since then, we’ve gotten much, much better, I think at, at othering, um, uh, people of opposite political persuasion. And we’ve gotten much, uh, much worse at reflecting on our own, um, kind of, uh, biases, uh, when it comes to, uh, addressing them ourselves.
David: so sometimes it almost feels like we backfill, you know, the blue and red and even conservative liberal stuff, like after the fact, like we first see what the tribe thinks we should be saying about it. So, you know, you get some of these candidates that really, you know, what’s your underlying philosophy?
Like, is it [00:10:00] small government? Well then why? What about these things? Right? Well, this is okay because you know, and you kind of talk yourself into that. There’s a philosophy behind it and it’s almost like in many cases there’s not much philosophy anymore. It’s just tribal. Like it’s just, I go along. With what my tribe says, and then I’ll talk myself into a n create a narrative later to make it fit a philosophy.
Rose-Stockwell: Absolutely. So, There’s a couple of great examples of this that I love. Uh, if you look back on the issue of immigration in the United States in, uh, in the, uh, 1980s and 1990s, uh, you can find this clip on YouTube. It’s a, a clip of, uh, George Bush, um, having a conversation with Reagan in the primaries. Yeah.
So it’s eighties, 1980s, and, uh, Reagan and Bush are having conversation, a debate about immigration, and they’re competing. Uh, to discuss the issue of immigration with, with more of a compassionate perspective. They’re like these hardworking Mexicans that’re trying to come to the United States. This is a really important [00:11:00] topic.
We need to make sure that they can come to the country legally and do the work they want to do, right? So there’s not, not a universal, uh, not a universally, uh, conservative issue, uh, by any means. Uh, just reaching back, you know, one or two generations. Also, abortion, which today is a, you know, extremely, uh, conservative, uh, hot button issue, uh, was actually, uh, Not in the, you know, in the sixties and seventies it was actually much more, uh, widely supported and widely understood to be, uh, an important right for people, um, and was shockingly nonpartisan.
So, uh, yeah, if you, if you look with enough kind of, uh, distance from a lot of these topics, uh, you’ll see that the current kind of culture wars that feel like, you know, lines in concrete are actually. Uh, lines, lines drawn in the sand at some point in time, um, that we just, you know, we can’t really see anymore.
Uh, we can’t really see how they got there. Uh, and that’s, uh, that’s a big part of the problem. So, Yeah, exactly.
David: Well, so, you know, we we’re kind of pretending like we weren’t chatting a little bit before, but we actually were, [00:12:00] and, and one of the conversations we were talking about a little bit was this idea of kind of a meta discussion about how we sort of have to, everybody kind of has to play this game to, to survive and achieve.
And I kind of have a mantra on this show, and my son is actually who really holds me to this, uh, of, you know, sort of not making this podcast, uh, outrage about outrage. And, you know, so we’re out here trying to promote without outrage. We’re trying to get social media attention without outrage, and, and you sort of must have kind of the same problem promoting the book.
So, so how do you go about dealing with that challenge?
Rose-Stockwell: Great question. Uh, yeah, fantastic question. Uh, you know, if we’re, if we’re all operating, uh, an immediate ecosystem that, that. Puts outrage and click bait and emotionally arresting headlines above others, uh, then yeah, then you, you need to kind of figure out how to, you know, um, you know, climb that mountain of engagement, uh, in a different way.
Uh, and or, you know, play the game in a slightly different way. You know, for, I think for the, for a good portion of the [00:13:00] last 10 years, uh, it was pretty easy to make social media companies the enemy. You know, we’re talking about the us versus them mentality and, uh, Big, you know, big part of my book is actually trying to illustrate and show very clearly that this was not, you know, malevolent actors.
It was not Zuckerberg and Dorsey, you know, scheming like Mr. Burns and trying to get people angry, um, for the sake of profit. It was, uh, really, you know, kind of a, a, they stumbled into this quite on accident. You know, they built a few, uh, really key products, um, that fundamentally shifted the way we consume information online and.
There’s these natural reservoirs of atten attention that come from, uh, outrage porn, from, you know, from a disposition towards, towards, uh, the extreme, uh, the incendiary. And, uh, if you build an algorithm that rank orders things for attention, then we will naturally gravitate towards that kind of content.
And, uh, so, so yeah. So trying to, trying to navigate and trying to get [00:14:00] attention in this space, uh, is certainly, is certainly its own. Fun, weird and salacious game, uh, as well, uh, for a while there. Um, you know, I’ve had a couple of very viral articles in the earlier part of this book project, um, that were really focused on kind of trying to bring attention to these issues in a meaningful way.
And I have been heartened to know that you can still, I think, go viral with good content. That’s long form. Um, like that’s a good kind of viral, right? With a good podcast. That is, that is a, uh, you know, a, a. Slightly nuanced version of, um, of an issue that, um, that adds some complexity to it. Um, you know, you might not get the, you know, top traffic in, in, uh, on, uh, you know, on on, on Twitter or on on, on Facebook necessarily.
But, um, things can still go viral and they still can reach large audiences, uh, even if they are, uh, not kind of succumbing to the outrage bait. Yeah. You know, and I [00:15:00] definitely,
David: you know, it’s kind of one of these paradoxes that you sort of hear a lot. You know, there definitely is. You know, like sort of people are, are other, I’m not the only one that’s sort of at outrage overload.
There, there is a, a, it seems like there is a constituency out there that is kind of fed up with it. They kind of realize it’s happening and they wanna lower the temperature or want to live in a li in a world where the temperature is lower. And sometimes at the same time, they still have the addiction and they still participate and they still do it.
So I, I think there’s a, there is a carryover from just, you know, me trying to promote the podcast to just a regular person, still trying to, Sort of participate in social media, get some of the, the click juice that you like, but not, maybe not, you know, but somehow not being a part of the problem
Rose-Stockwell: kind of thing.
Yeah. And it, there is the careful balance there, you know? Um, There. Yeah, there’s, I think there’s, there’s, there is something you can do, uh, there, which is, which is, you know, it, there, there’s several of these different reservoirs of possible attention that you can find. You know, it’s not just the things that [00:16:00] make people angry, uh, that will make people click.
A lot of people will click on things that they find useful, right? That they find, uh, helpful to the daily lives, and a lot of the content. Um, you know, today that, for instance, goes viral, um, on TikTok or, uh, even Instagram much of the time is stuff that are, it’s like a life hack for this reason, or, you know, this is the way you should think about solving this problem over here.
Um, and, and so I do think that there is some, some, uh, substantial weight being given to. Content that is ex like, actively useful to people’s lives. Um, and I, you know, if, if, if we’re talking about kind of solutions or hope for the future around this stuff, you know, TikTok is the largest growing, uh, this is both, both bad and good, but like TikTok is the largest good.
So we’ll go with the good first. TikTok is, was the fastest growing social network. Uh, In history consumes a huge amount of our collective attention now. Um, we’ll, we’ll go with like, the good angle of this is they actually really oftentimes avoid the [00:17:00] salacious and the outrageous that well qualify.
Salacious. There’s a lot of salacious stuff on TikTok, but the outrageous stuff, the stuff that makes you really angry, there’s like this curiosity gap stuff that they like to do. There’s this useful, you know, there’s a lot of hilarious stuff on there. That is, that is extremely, uh, uh, engaging that is not, you know, getting us mad, right?
So I think it’s, it’s imprecise to, to assume that it’s only outrageous stuff that gets us angry. You know, on the bad side of that, I would say that TikTok is also just the, one of the most, uh, problematic, uh, media tools that we have, uh, available to us these days in terms of, its. It’s, uh, potential to manipulate, um, our, uh, our available information flows, uh, dramatically and shift the perspectives of, um, millions of Americans.
So that’s a whole, a whole nother kind of basket of issues there. Um, and so far as like TikTok could also decide to make people particularly mad about certain things, uh, about the next US political election and push politics in specific [00:18:00] directions. So it’s, you know, it’s kind of impossible to ex to extract, uh, Uh, you know, influence from use, right?
Like how we use these tools and how they influence us, uh, in the other direction. But I think it’s important to, uh, to to know that, you know, outrage is not the only vector for viral, uh, spread you, right? Yeah,
David: that is very true. You do see a lot of that kind of content on TikTok. Um, that’s true. So, you know, I, I brought this up.
I thought this was really cool, but I brought it up with my wife and she said, this is too nerdy. Don’t even talk about it. But this idea that sort of the US is kind of written in code, uh, and the code is, is in English, in the, as in the form of the Constitution, and sort of the people that, that runs that code.
And, uh, I, I really like that. Model. I think it’s cool. And I also, you know, and then, but, but, and then the, uh, network, you know, that sort of, um, it runs on is, is sort of the post office. Um, or at least in the beginning it was, was, yeah, it was the post office and that’s the speed of outrage, you know, was sort of [00:19:00] limited by that or the, how fast it propagated and how far it propagated.
And, um, you know, and. But there was some awareness even then that if, if like that passion and out, it was sort of like outrage was a tool to enforce the norms. Like it wasn’t a bad thing just on its own. It, it could be a good thing, but you know, if it spread too fast and then that model kind of breaks down.
So, uh, you know, Maybe, I mean, I, and I think people can almost just intuitively kinda see what that means. I mean, if you go from post office to telegram, to radio, to TV to internet, you know, obviously this is, uh, those, that, that’s all spreading a lot faster maybe than the system can handle from one system being, being our brain, which I do like the, uh, other, other term I grabbed from the book, the Race to the Bottom of the Brainstem.
Rose-Stockwell: Right, right. Yeah, that’s a, that’s a Tristan Harris, uh, uh, uh, Line that I have to give him credit for. But yeah, it’s a fantastic one. That’s such a good one. Um, yeah, so, [00:20:00] so I think that’s, that’s, uh, I think it’s helpful to, to think about how outrageous are useful. Right. And, you know, I, you know, both of us are in the, in the, uh, you know, the, the process of trying to let people know how we have too much outrage, outrage is, is really problematic for society.
Um, I think it is helpful to recognize that, you know, outrage is. A valuable thing, right? If we didn’t have outrage, we wouldn’t have society correction. Uh, in terms of like the, you know, we wouldn’t have human rights right. For instance. Right. We wouldn’t have, we wouldn’t have civil rights. We wouldn’t have, uh, we wouldn’t have, um, you know, a democratic government, right?
So, so the, it, it really does depend on the types of outrages. That are most available to us and the speed at which they spread, and then how those outrages are turned into policy. Right. So, um, if you think about, uh, you know, if we, we go back to the, the Constitution, as you said, the kind of original machine of the original outrage machine of, of American democracy, uh, you know, the, the, [00:21:00] uh, the.
The colonial press back in the back in the days, um, the country was founded upon outrage, right? It was founded upon people getting extremely mad about, uh, taxes levied on, uh, on the colonies by Britain after, uh, after the, uh, the major war that happened in the middle of the, uh, 17 hundreds, um, the seven years war.
And, uh, so there was, there was huge outrage during that time. And, you know, does, it shouldn’t be surprising that a, a large portion of the, you know, early founders were involved in print media, right? So, you know, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, all these guys were, were very, very active in disseminating information, getting people riled up about stuff, uh, you know, uh, printing papers to, to, to sell them, uh, and to get people, um, Uh, uh, interested, interested, uh, Sam Adams.
Sam Adams was a big one. He’s a big printer. Um, or his brother, [00:22:00] I think his brother was, but he, they were, they were all very, very deeply involved in the press, and so they got, yeah, they got a lot of people angry about stuff. And so, uh, if you fast forward just a little bit to the time of Thomas Jefferson after the revolution and look at his opinions about government versus newspapers, he felt like, The, uh, he, he felt like you didn’t, because before he became president, he felt like you didn’t need government.
If you had newspapers, right, if you had people that, you had people that just reported on the problems, you could get together, people get outraged by the problems that they saw. They would get together collectively, they’d like form a small council, and they would solve those problems in their community, right?
So you actually wouldn’t need government at all, right? Uh, you just need the newspapers and you need collective action. Uh, when Thomas Jefferson became president, uh, he actually tried to pass a bunch of, uh, kind of draconian laws against the press, uh, because he felt like they were misrepresenting, uh, what he [00:23:00] was doing in office.
So, uh, you know, his, his kind of ideals quickly met the hard earth of reality when he actually was forced to govern with, you know, a salacious press that was interested in. Uh, in, in, uh, in, you know, in, in calling him out for all of the things that he was and wasn’t doing. Um, so yeah, so what that, you know, if you, if we kind of try to just break this down further here, it’s like, it’s like we, we want outrages, we want those outrages to be supported, supported by evidence, and we want them to be, uh, be corrected by policy, right?
And we need all of those things. All those things require really strong evidence and, you know, you can’t just have people getting angry about something that doesn’t exist, then you’ll pass laws that don’t address the actual problem. Uh, or they’ll pass a law that doesn’t address a problem at all and create other problems in the process.
Right. So, so, um, just I think it’s helpful to kind of zoom out from this, this, this thing here and look at the structures, the kind of. [00:24:00] Uh, you know, atomic elements of, of government and outrage and how it, how it works in society, how it’s beneficial. Um, and you can kind of see where some of the levers in our current media ecosystem, you know, Back in the day.
It was, it was, like you said, the, you know, the post, the postal service was the, was the, the fastest way we could actually spread information. So speed of horse. Um, when the Telegraph came along, we had huge upset, right? Suddenly there was tremendous misinformation being spread all over the country at the speed of, uh, of, of, of tele, of the Telegraph.
Um, and that was incredibly disruptive and you can actually draw a line. From, from the Telegraph to the Civil War. Um, not saying that the Civil War wouldn’t have happened without the Telegraph, I think it still would’ve happened. Certainly. Um, but, but you know, the outrage is being shared, um, increased dramatically during that time.
And then, you know, once we had radio and television and, and national newspapers, there’s this process that happened towards the end of the 18 hundreds [00:25:00] in which, uh, the whole industry actually began to professionalize and be like, actually, you know what? Misinformation, even when it’s reported by reporters and uh, and uh, newspapers, misinformation is really bad.
It’s really bad. It’s really toxic, and there’s this kind of collective. Awareness of, uh, of how toxic misinformation can be. Um, and so we, we went through a period like this in the middle of the 18 hundreds, in which, in which we, uh, we all, I think, got overloaded by both outrages and, uh, mis and disinformation.
Um, and, uh, the result was a media system that was, uh, was more oriented towards, towards facts and calling each other out. Um, calling out the, an industry as as a whole. So you have journalists that call out journalists. Uh, publishers that call it publishers in the process you end up with, with, uh, some kind of corroboration of the facts.
So, um, so I’m hopeful This is, again, going back to this kind of hopeful elements. I’m hopeful that we’re starting to kind of emerge with a few of these cultural antibodies in the process. Um, and that I’m, I’m also hopeful that, that [00:26:00] some of the social media companies are responsible for fixing these tools, uh, can, uh, can step up the plate and help us get better information.
David: And so much of it depends on trust. I mean, trust comes up a lot in the book and you know, this is where we seem to have a, a real deficiency right now is, is in trust and, and the noise out there is creating, creating a lot, causing a lot of people to sort of throw up their hands, who can I trust, kind of thing.
Which is, you know, kind of a scary place to be. I think there’s so many factors, things like the sorting that we’ve all done and this kind of thing that we don’t. Um, know, know who to trust or are finding more and more narrow information sources. And you, you kind of have this, um, model or analogy that you use of, of Molik.
Is that the right pronunciation? Yeah. Molik. Yeah. Yeah. Molik. And, and, uh, you know, you talk about the couple three things that are to sort of allow for trust and cooperation or repeat interaction. So you, um, idea that you actually. Interact with this person re sort of on a regular basis, I guess, and kind of form a trust relationship that way.
[00:27:00] And then you are looking for possible win-win. So you can’t be playing a a zero sum game, which, you know, a lot of people think a lot of things, there’s zero sum games when they’re really not. So you have to kind of, that, that’s something I think people can do better to explain. Um, and then, you know, this idea of low miscommunication, which, um, You know, you can never make that zero, but maybe if you’re doing the other things, you can maybe have, give people the benefit of
Rose-Stockwell: the doubt.
Definitely. Definitely. Yeah. I, I think that’s, that’s great. So yeah, the, the, the what you’re study, what you’re citing there is, uh, uh, uh, axle rod’s work on the, uh, the prisoner’s dilemma, um, on solutions to the prison’s dilemma, which is a classic game theory. Um, Uh, problem in which, in which two people, um, put in different rooms can.
No, it’s the no, the wrong thing to do. Another thing that is in their, in the worst interest of the whole to do, but still do that wrong [00:28:00] thing because it is in their personal best interest to do. Right. Um, and, uh, it’s a, it’s a, yeah, real, real, classic problem that I think we’re actually facing across the board in our media ecosystem right now.
Right. We’re talking about like, how do you get ahead in, you know, in, in podcasting if you’re not willing to use, you know, use some of these kind of outrage tactics. How do you get ahead. And how do you get attention if the sh you know, the loudest person in the room over there is, is someone’s angry about something and you’re, you have a more measured, uh, you have a more measured angle on one of these issues.
Um, Uh, so I think you can, you can break down most of our, uh, most of our issues right now. Um, and, uh, and, and, and think about them in terms of these, these, uh, what you can call a coordination trap. Basically a coordination among good actors to actually make. Everyone, uh, better off. Um, now the term moak comes from, uh, the Bible actually.
Um, and, and here I’m, I’m referencing, uh, this fantastic article, uh, this post by Scott Alexander called [00:29:00] Meditations on Moak, um, in which he. He basically draws this through line from using the, the kind of concept of molluck as being a, uh, kind of pernicious force. Um, really a, he’s, he’s trying to put a, you know, a name and a face to this force that has been with us throughout human history, which is this, uh, this, this, this, this trap of bad incentives that causes good people to do bad things all the time.
And, um, You know, in, in, in the Bible, Molik was a, a God that, um, that we, that, that, uh, you know, People in the Bible serve their, uh, their kind of most pri like give children to, to consume, right? So it was like serving up our most precious resources to this, this God. And I think if you think about it’s been helpful, uh, with, with me in, in the midst of my community when we’re talking about these issues to, you know, don’t shake your fist at the person across [00:30:00] the aisle.
Don’t, you know, don’t rage it at, uh, at. Uh, you know, Republicans or, you know, conservatives or leftists or whatever it is, but like, try to understand the systems in place, um, that are actually causing people to find themselves in these, uh, in these, in these, you know, in these bad behaviors. And a lot of the time you can actually find a, a very mechanistic reason that people are acting so poorly.
And social media, unfortunately, is a giant. Game with Mullock, right? You’re constantly, uh, you know, you’re constantly, I, I constantly feel this, this, these, these perverse incentives crop up on a regular basis. You know, Twitter feels like this game in which, like, it’s, it’s personally good for me if I tweet on there on a regular basis, but it’s actually probably bad for society because every time I tweet, even if I tweet something kind of useful.
It’s actually getting people a little bit more addicted to the platform, and people that are more addicted to the platform are gonna see more outrage stuff on there, and they’re gonna get a little bit more polarized on whatever topic they’re following. Right? [00:31:00] Uh, so, so it’s, it’s ki it’s, it’s, you, you can start to see some of these, these, uh, these systemic incentives for bad behavior all over the place when it comes to social media and the internet.
And I do think it’s really helpful to, to, to call it by, uh, uh, you know, kind of this, this meta name of Molluck. I think it’s a, a really helpful idea.
David: Yeah. So, you know, you talk about this dark, that all technology goes through this period that, uh, you know, the Dark Valley, um, where it’s like the harms caused by it are obscured by their mass adoption, and you cite some, some, uh, nifty examples.
Maybe, maybe you can, I think that’s an interesting story. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about one, one of those examples or any way you wanna approach the problem really, or the question really. Yeah,
Rose-Stockwell: sure. So this particular topic, uh, you know, I spent a lot of time in this book researching the history of media disruptions, uh, trying to figure out when.
We’ve gone through this before, if we’ve gone through this before. Is social media fundamentally different? You know, is our current kind of cacophony of outrage something that has never happened before? [00:32:00] Are we just getting so good at extracting attention that like we can’t return from this point? Um, and.
You know, like things are different now for sure, but there’s some patterns that very much remain the same. If you look back across the history of different, in like step function increases in virality that we’ve had. Right? So the printing press when it came, uh, came out, um, it was, you could argue it was the most violent invention.
Of, uh, of our, in our species history up until that point because it, it plunged the entire continent of Europe into roughly a hundred years of civil war. Right? There was huge disruption that came from it, right? And tremendous violence. Um, and that was obscured by its mass adoption. Everyone, everyone was happy to have it right.
Um, Everybody had a Bible for the first time. Exactly. Exactly. Everyone, everyone, uh, had a Bible for the first time. Uh, you know, both, both [00:33:00] Martin Luther and the Catholic church during the Reformation were printed using the printing press all the time to Disse disseminate, uh, you know, the, for the church, it was disseminate propaganda, um, which, which actually had a positive valence during that time.
And it was also to, uh, to sell indulgences, which were little slips of paper. That, um, that absolved you of your sins that you could buy for like a lot of money. You could basically like buy your way into heaven. Um, that was one of the primary things that pissed Martin Luther off. Um, So, uh, so yeah, so just to go back to the, the kind of concept of Dark Valley here.
Every, you know, every media, media, technology, we, uh, we adopt. Usually there’s this tremendous euphoria involved in, its in its adoption, which you go through this period of just like extreme excitement and, um, And everyone who’s using it, they’re like, this is amazing. Um, and that often ex obscures, it’s, it’s, uh, you know, it, it, it’s second order harms the things that actually are problematic about it.
Um, you know, in the case of the printing press, it [00:34:00] dramatically increased the quantity of misinformation that was available to everyone. And like, you could argue that beforehand there was plenty of misinformation already, but it really, it, it dramatically increased the quantity of misinformation that was available.
It also increased the quantity of information that was available. Right. I’m not sure if you could argue that we shouldn’t. You know, they, that Gutenberg should have rolled out the printing press differently. I don’t think you could necessarily argue that. Uh, then there, there was no, you know, kind of governmental system to effectively do that in a way that, that I think would, uh, that would’ve made it better.
Um, but, you know, today, and you, you can look through, um, you know, different periods. Like again, the, the, the telegraph, uh, was another one. Uh, both radio and television each had a major disruptive period. So, That came in their wake with different outcomes, right? So with radio it was this incredibly powerful, centralized way to suddenly put, uh, contemporaneously a voice of.
A leader in your bed, in your bedroom, in your living room, [00:35:00] that you could all like listen to at the same time. And that was truly an impossible feat before, right? You had to rely upon other Methodists of dissemination. You had to wait for people to read a paper, to get a paper, to read a paper. Um, But, but suddenly, you know, you had everyone in bedroom listening wrapped to the, the voice of, of your leader, right?
Uh, or, uh, you know, of a, of a, of a person telling a story or, um, or a mu a musician, you know, all these things, which are amazing. But, but it also allowed for this, this, this deep and powerful, um, kind of vein of, of authoritarianism to emerge. Um, and, you know, you can look at what’s. What, uh, the Nazi party did in, uh, they, right when they took over Germany, the first thing they went to was the radio and they actually created a special, uh, people’s receiver, which was a, a people’s radio.
That was, that was they subsidized in the government. They put in everyone’s home. They could afford it. It was very cheap, and they just wanna make sure that you had an immediate. [00:36:00] Like a main line to the furor. Right. That you could, you could hear what he was saying and listen to what he was saying and believe what he was saying instantly.
They made everybody follow his Twitter, right? Yeah. Pretty much. Right. It was like a default, default, default tweet, uh, follow right. Um, without any, anything else. Right. You couldn’t actually, the, the buttons on the, on the people’s receiver were actually, uh, were, were hard coded. So you couldn’t, you couldn’t change it off of the, off of the American, or, sorry, the, uh, the, the, um, The Nazi party channel.
Um, and if you were caught like. Messing with it and changing the buttons to like an American radio station or wherever you could get, you could get caught and arrested. Um, uh, so, so yeah, so it was this, this, you know, extremely powerful, uh, force, you know, in the United States, the radio. And not to get too nerdy on the history of this stuff, but I think it’s important to understand, like in the United States in the thirties, one of the most popular radio broadcasters in the country, he was.
Uh, he was a man named Father Cochlan [00:37:00] and he ran a federated radio station that was kind of like a pro to N P R in which people would send in a couple of bucks to support this guy’s radio station. And on this radio station, you would hear, uh, you, you, you might hear, you know him, uh, railing against the K k K, you might hear him giving you a lesson on economics.
Uh, but you would also hear. Literal direct Nazi propaganda from him. And you would hear about deep conspiracies against the Jews, and you would hear about, uh, or yeah, he, he was just, he was a direct line of, of, of Nazi party, uh, propaganda, the United States, and he was listened to, uh, by, over, by millions of Americans.
He was one of the most popular broadcasters of the day. Right. So, so if you, you know, you think about this kind of being a, a total, total outlier, uh, in terms of. What the Nazi party did with the radio. Uh, we had a huge problem here in the United States with it as well. Um, and this was, this was a dark valley.
You know, everyone’s like, the radio is amazing, [00:38:00] but there was this undercurrent of real, uh, real danger and a threat to our kind of collective information system that was a result of that.
David: Well, in the radio case, what was our way
Rose-Stockwell: out? Yeah. Yeah, though that, I think Cochlan is a very fascinating example because, you know, he wasn’t funded by the government, he wasn’t funded by, uh, you know, big corporate sponsors or anything like that.
It was literally just people paying money. So, Because they liked what he was doing. Right? It was like the Patreon of the day, right? It was like npr, right? He was people just literally sending him money. So what happened was, uh, in the lead up to World War ii, um, there was increasing uneasiness that, uh, that Cochlan was, that was, he was, he know basically being a, a mouthpiece of the Nazi party in the United States.
And so, uh, there was a concerted effort to federate or to, to, um, Uh, to nationalize the airwaves, right? So they actually decided to. Literally [00:39:00] like the airwaves didn’t, you know, the airwaves quote as the quote unquote airwaves didn’t exist as like a concept before that. And they’re like, actually, you know what?
The airwaves, they’re actually public property. And as a result, they are rela, they’re, uh, regulated. They can be regulated by the government. And so, um, they, they nationalize the frequency spectrum and they. Issued licenses to who could and could not listen to them. Right. And so you could think about this in Father Coghlan’s case as like, actually, like, was that government censorship?
Was that something that, and they didn’t, they didn’t give him a license that they, they effectively forced him off the air. And there was some, uh, some concerted industry efforts to also get him off the air at that time, recognizing that like his speech was increasingly unhinged and problematic. Uh, but yeah, mostly it was the federal government that decided like, no, you can’t.
You can’t do this, and so, right. So like, is it okay to de platform a Nazi in this particular case when he is, uh, you know, when he is, uh, uh, speaking to millions of Americans nightly? Um, and I think, you know, uh, [00:40:00] retrospectively I think we can all agree, yeah, that was probably a good idea. Like if we, you know, if we had waffled on World War ii, I think it would’ve been a bad situation for the country.
So, um, and this is one of the kind of core elements and things that, that I come back to in the book, is that, Is that, you know, we, we have this concept of free speech as being this kinda universal, right? That should never, ever be infringed or some people do and the reality is, someone somewhere is always making a determination about what can and can’t reach the largest audience.
Right? So if, if that is, if that is the government, in the case of Father Cochlan, Um, if it’s the social media companies, if it’s the algorithms in the case of so, of, of social media today, uh, you know, it, someone somewhere is always making that determination. So you do not have, from a governmental perspective, a right to complete, uh, uh, uh, spread of your information, right?
Of your, of your, of your speech. You don’t have that right and. I, you know, I wish there was an easier model cause this is actually a wicked issue. It’s a very difficult issue to, to kind of wrap [00:41:00] our heads, heads around, um, as individuals, because we want the right to speak our voices. We want the right to speak, to reach our, the largest audiences possible.
But someone somewhere is always making that determination. You can’t assume that virality, for instance, is right. It’s not a right. Right. There’s actually, there’s, there’s someone is going to be between you and the, uh, the consumer of that information, whether it’s an algorithm or something else. Um, uh, you know, media provider, uh, uh, um, uh, instant messaging app, whatever it is, someone is gonna be, uh, in the middle there.
And they do have the ability to infringe upon that or infringe upon it. Uh, restrict that, uh, and make sure that people, um, are getting, uh, Good information or not. You know, a lot of, a lot of these companies have very recently, um, reduced the amount they’re willing to kind of restrict, uh, misinformation, which I think is actually a huge problem.
Yeah. I mean, we’re
David: still trying to, uh, wrestle with the question of can you depl platform a Nazi?
Rose-Stockwell: That’s a tough one. So, you [00:42:00] know, I want,
David: yeah. So I want to, um, sort of, you know, my, my audience would love if I would just rattle off every one of your sort of proposed ideas for how to do, do things and, uh, you know, and, and they would love if I do that, but I’m not gonna do that.
A they should read the book, but I. B I think it’s more, I have a couple more meta sort of, I’m gonna come at it a couple different ways with some meta questions there too. Um, you know, cuz one thing that I, I immediately saw when I, when you’re sort of going through the list and, and things like, you know, if you find yourself emotionally triggered or, you know, outrageous content, You know, that you regular cause you to regret your time.
You know, from my experience or what I’m learning here is I think many times we have blind spots to that. Like we don’t always connect the cause and effect there. Like, we’re mad, uh, we’re mad at the other side, you know, uh, we should be mad. I mean, they’re doing bad things and it’s their fault. It’s not social media’s fault.
And I see this in the, the street outrage interviews that I do where I, I talk to just sort of ordinary Americans and, and I see [00:43:00] this from people on all sides and. So, you know, do you have any thoughts on how we can sort of, you know, before you can fix the problem, you recognize the problem. Do you have any thoughts on the idea of how we kind of overcome some of these blind spots to even realizing, yeah, it was the social media that was doing it to you kind of thing?
Rose-Stockwell: Yeah, it’s some, you know, Billion dollar question, I think right now for, uh, you know, the outcomes for our country and our democracy, uh, right this second. Um, it is very hard to not be triggered once you, uh, once you’re triggered, right? Like it’s hard to, hard to unt trigger yourself, right? It’s hard to, it’s hard to calm down after you’ve been exposed to something that’s really triggering.
So, I think part of it is certainly, uh, certainly becoming aware of the processes and places that you are most commonly outraged, right? So being aware of being made aware of the, uh, you know, um, Uh, the types of feelings that you have in your body, um, [00:44:00] after you digest a certain piece of content, right? So after you go to the Fox News website, after you go to, uh, Ms.
Nbc, after you go to the New York Times, like recognize that they, uh, that each, each of these news providers, you know, across their different degrees of veracity and, and truthfulness are still selecting four stories that are going to try to push your buttons, right? Even the York Times will do this, right?
Even mainstream news outlets do it all the time. Uh, it is quote unquote newsworthy, right? To have something that makes people mad. Um, you know, there’s a slight difference between, uh, the things that, uh, that are covered in the straight news reporting versus the, uh, the opinion and analysis sections. Um, but still there’s a curator, uh, curatorial process that’s in place for what.
Types of stories go above the fold versus below the fold. And those tend to be, uh, motivated by what will capture our attention and specifically what will capture the attention of a specific audience, right? So, so, uh, newspapers have [00:45:00] become more and more narrow cast, right? You think about like, the history of broadcast media, it’s like one to many, many, many people.
Um, now, it’s now these news organizations are, um, getting much better at targeting the types of interests that their audience, uh, have. And so just recognizing, I think, The first, first step is just recognizing that a lot of these news organizations are actually trying to push your buttons to some degree.
Um, and again, not all outage is bad. It’s okay to be angry about stuff that happens. You know, one of the things that, uh, that you spoke up before, it’s like if, if other people are really angry about something, uh, they’re gonna do something about it. And if you’re waffling about it, then they might do something that is actually draconian and might.
Make things worse, uh, for you too. So I do think it’s important to, to not not fight that back, uh, on these, uh, on, on some of these particular issues. Um, but I do think that recognizing this, and you mentioned regret, um, I think regret is a really, really important and valuable, [00:46:00] uh, emotion for us. You know, if there’s any.
System in our body. I think that helps with, uh, with mitigating some of these problems. It is, uh, recognizing how we feel after we use these tools, whether or not it’s, uh, yeah, whether or not social media or whether or not it’s a, you know, uh, a news website, uh, cable news, how we’re feeling afterwards if you’re feeling anxious, if you’re feeling or regretful, if you’re feelings ick.
Then that is a good signal to reduce your usage, like turn it down. Um, and I think that’s, that’s pretty rare for us to know. Uh, um, it’s pretty rare for us to have a signal in our body that’s so strong. But it’s, it’s, it’s a really important for us to, for one, for us to recognize and to, uh, to track when we’re feeling we’re feeling it because it’s not, it’s a good, it’s a good recognition.
Outrage is not healthy for us.
David: Well, yeah. Right. And, and you know, I talk, you know, I, I know that there, there’s been research on the sort of the notion of pre bunking, you know, for, for sort of [00:47:00] misinformation type stuff. But I kind of sometimes feel like pre outraging, I don’t know, you know, sort of gearing yourself up, that kind of being, just having a lens that you kind of are remembering that they’re trying to do this to you can’t, can’t, seems like it can
Yeah, I think the term is maybe meta awareness, right? Right. It’s like, it’s like looking at the thing. I have this, this like personal image that I, that I, uh, did a while ago, which has like a picture of my, uh, of my app screen and I tried to rename all of the different apps, um, on my, on my app, app screen.
To be like, uh, you know, like Instagram, uh, distracted and FOMO for, you know, for for 40 minutes, right? Uh, you know, New York Times, like upset about the world for 30 minutes, right? And just, just like kind of re re resetting my, uh, my, you know, my interpretation of these various buttons that I press. Um, with the expectation that I will have that emotion if I press that.
And if you, if you look at your apps and your tools like that, then it actually, it can help you mitigate some of [00:48:00] your, uh, Some, some of the outrage. So, and I would just say in, in terms of interpersonal stuff, because most of this conflict comes down to a lot of our, you know, family relationships are, uh, you know, our neighbors are our friends.
Sometimes our ex-friend people that we actually still really care about, but that have seemingly become lost in this process of engaging with the internet. Um, I, I think that that mitigating and connecting with people outside of the realm of politics is really helpful. And just having a meal or a conversation, um, focusing on the issues that you.
That, that you, uh, that maybe not even the issues, just the, the things that you like about the person and the things that you share with that person. Right. I have a, I have a number of friends, uh, across the political aisle, um, that, that definitely have some like crazy beliefs. And I think one of the helpful ways of, of mitigating those beliefs is by reminding them that we are.
Part of the [00:49:00] same tribe and that we, that we are part of the same community and, uh, the same identity to some degree, right? Like that, you know, most of the studies on misinformation show that, that if you actually want that people aren’t interested in facts when you’re actually trying to, you know, convince people to, uh, uh, you know, to come to your side.
They’re actually more interested in whether or not you care about them, whether or not you’re part of the same, uh, in group. And so, I, I think that, you know, a lot of our problems could be solved by. By finding, uh, finding connection points with other people that are not mediated through politics, that are not mediated through, um, the news, you know, but actually just trying to connect with people, um, uh, on the, on the value of your inherent relationship.
David: And sort of remembering that you actually kinda like each other and you’re funny and stuff
Rose-Stockwell: like that. 100%. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
David: Yeah. So, you know, you seem pretty confident in this book that we’re of an, in our ability to, to rewire the machine, as you say. Uh, but you know, it feels, uh, it [00:50:00] feels to me, and I want to sort of stress the point feels there because I didn’t read all the references.
It feels like we’re, uh, you know, like the problems today are a bit unique. I mean, I was thinking about like the Voting Rights Act, you know, that was passed, um, when it, after it was passed, the Supreme Court later ruled, you know, eight to one, that the voting Right Rights Act was constitutional. But recently we’ve seen parts of it kind of weakened and the barely upheld section two in a five four in the Milligan decision.
So, you know, it’s sort of like when the authorities at that, or when people at that level, you know, maybe the, uh, authority is not the right word, but the, uh, sort of elites at that level appear so divided. You know, how how are we as people sort of. Going to come get past that. Um, and, and so I guess like my meta question is sort of like, how confident are you really?
And uh, you know, are you pretty sure that we haven’t reached some kind of a point of no return?
Rose-Stockwell: Yeah, that’s a great question. Uh, it’s actually one I get a lot, uh, which is like, how optimistic should we be about the [00:51:00] future, um, in the future of our country and kinda the future of our species also, which is coming up a lot in the AI conversation right now.
Um, Yeah. You know, this, this is, this is a hard topic, right? I think if I was gonna put money on it, um, I would say that we’re in for a rough ride in, uh, in the next decade. Um, you know, the, the incentives are pretty much all oriented towards, uh, towards more conflict and more, um, you know, dissolution and less trust.
All of these things, um, What I would offer though is that this is very unstable. It’s like a very unstable system, right? And if you look at back at the history of periods of like deep instability, um, Oftentimes they come at the cost of violence, right? There’s some, there’s some violence involved. There’s oftentimes a lot of people that suffer as a result.
Um, but there is some, uh, some [00:52:00] re correction that eventually does happen, right? Um, uh, people, you know, before the, and just to reach, reach back in history here, you know, the idea of tolerance. Literally the idea of tolerance was considered a sin during, uh, the reformation, right? It was, it was actually, uh, a, a tolerance was, was something that you should not give to other people, right?
If someone was a Catholic and you were one of the many kind of emerging Protestant do denominations, then you should, uh, then you should, uh, it was your duty to convert that person. Um, uh, or potentially, you know, Inflict some kind of, uh, violence upon them or punishment upon them for their, uh, their wrong beliefs.
And, uh, it, it did take a period of, again, uh, uh, you know, over a century of bloodshed for this concept of tolerance to emerge as an important kind of meme. And I ideal for people to follow. Right. And I, I think that, you know, if in my more hopeful moments when I think [00:53:00] about how social media, um, has, has rewired our brains, And how the media has, has we rewired our brains from recent years?
Like I, I think that people are in some ways becoming aware of how bad it is and that this, that something is inherently wrong, right? Uh, and I. I think that there’s some more there. There we’re beginning to see some emerging, emerging memes for things like tolerance again, where it’s like, okay, cool, like this is, this is, you know, you believe this crazy thing, but like, It’s, it’s not, it doesn’t mean you are evil, right?
It doesn’t mean you’re inherently wrong and, uh, you know, you’re not gonna see that, uh, in the news. You’re not gonna see that, uh, in our, um, you know, in our general discourse. You’re not gonna see that on Twitter very much. Uh, but there are some really, Strong and powerful voices that people that are just not willing to demonize, that are not willing to dehumanize in the same way that I think, um, our, our [00:54:00] political machine and our media machine and our, uh, our, our social media machines.
Um, Kind of expect us to. And so, so I, I am hopeful there. Um, and I, I think that, you know, it’s gonna be a rough road ahead, uh, particularly in the context of the geopolitical stage. You know, we’re, we’re basically facing this test right now between a free and know, open society that can share information openly and a closed one, which is what China does, right?
And these, these two different models, Are really fundamentally what, what are being compared right now. Um, you know, uh, you know, all these different emerging countries around the world are, are, are, are looking to the United States and they’re looking to China. They’re trying to figure out which model to follow.
Like should we have a closed information system? Should we have a, um, An open one. Right? And the open one right now looks extremely chaotic and extremely dangerous. And extremely problematic. Right? And the closed one’s like, oh, they kind of have it under control. They seem like they’re, they’re doing okay.[00:55:00]
Um, you know, I, I don’t think that’s the case on the ground in a place like China, um, uh, by any means, but. Uh, but still I think that that, uh, that this is really a test of these two systems and the current media ecosystem and environment. And there is, you know, there are, there are boundary points to how much crazy misinformation we should allow to spread in society.
Right? I don’t, I don’t think that the solution. To, uh, to misinformation is more, more misinformation. I think that, that we need structured systems in place and we need design, uh, incentives and structures in place, particularly at social media companies to help mitigate the flood, uh, bullshit that we, uh, we’re exposed to on a regular basis.
David: Well, um, I really appreciate the insights, uh, to buy us Rose Stockwell. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Rose-Stockwell: Thank you so much for having me, David. I really enjoy your, uh, your show. This has been an honor.[00:56:00]
David: That is it for this episode in the Outrage Overload Podcast. For everything we talked about on this episode, visit outrage overload.net. Before we go, I have a quick favor to ask. You know, reviews mean the world to us podcasters. They help us reach more listeners and continue bringing you thought-provoking content.
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