This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit

This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit

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.

One evening in late October 2014, a doctor checked his own pulse and stepped onto a subway car in New York City. He had just returned home from a brief stint volunteering overseas, and was heading to Brooklyn to meet some friends at a bowling alley. He was looking forward to this break — earlier that day he had gone for a run around the city, grabbed coffee on the High Line, and eaten at a local meatball shop. When he woke up the next day exhausted with a slight fever, he called his employer.

Within 24 hours, he would become the most most feared man in New York. His exact path through the city would be scrutinized by hundreds of people, the establishments he visited would be shuttered, and his friends and fiancée would be put into quarantine.

Dr. Craig Spencer had contracted Ebola while he was treating patients in Guinea with Doctors Without Borders. He was not contagious until long after he was put into quarantine. He followed protocol to the letter in reporting his symptoms and posed no threat to anyone around him while he was in public. He was a model patient — a fact readily shared by experts.

This did not stop a media explosion declaring an imminent apocalypse. A frenzy of clickbait and terrifying narratives emerged as every major news entity raced to capitalize on the collective Ebola panic.

The physical damage done by the disease itself was small. The hysteria, however — traveling instantly across the internet — shuttered schools, grounded flights, and terrified the nation.

Social Media exploded around the topic, reaching 6,000 tweets per second, leaving the CDC and public health officials scrambling to curtail the misinformation spreading in all directions. The fear traveled as widely as the stories reporting it. The emotional response — and the media attached to it — generated billions of impressions for the companies reporting on it.

Those billions were parlayed directly into advertising revenue. Before the hysteria had ended, millions of dollars worth of advertising real-estate attached to Ebola-related media had been bought and sold algorithmically to companies.

The terror was far more contagious than the virus itself, and had the perfect network through which to propagate — a digital ecosystem built to spread emotional fear far and wide.

I’m going to tell you a few things you probably already know

Every time you open your phone or your computer, your brain is walking onto a battleground. The aggressors are the architects of your digital world, and their weapons are the apps, news feeds, and notifications in your field of view every time you look at a screen.

They are all attempting to capture your most scarce resource — your attention — and take it hostage for money. Your captive attention is worth billions to them in advertising and subscription revenue.

To do this, they need to map the defensive lines of your brain — your willpower and desire to concentrate on other tasks — and figure out how to get through them.

You will lose this battle. You have already. The average person loses it dozens of times per day.

This might sound familiar: In an idle moment you open your phone to check the time. 19 minutes later you regain consciousness in a completely random corner of your digital world: a stranger’s photo stream, a surprising news article, a funny YouTube clip. You didn’t mean to do that. What just happened?

This is not your fault — it is by design.

The digital rabbit hole you just tumbled down is funded by advertising, aimed at you. Almost every “free” app or service you use depends on this surreptitious process of unconsciously turning your eyeballs into dollars, and they have built sophisticated methods of reliably doing it. You don’t pay money for using these platforms, but make no mistake, you are paying for them — with your time, your attention, and your perspective.

This is not a small, technical shift in the types of information you consume, the ads you see, or the apps you download.

This has actually changed how you see the world.

The War for Your Attention

Before I go any further, let me assure you that this is not a list of grievances about the evils of technology. I am not a Luddite. Like much of humanity, I deeply value my devices as a helpful prosthesis for my memory, my productivity, and my ability to connect to the people I care about.

This is instead a sober evaluation of how the strategies of digitally capturing our attention have altered us — our lives, our media, and our worldview. These incremental shifts have added up to enormous changes in our politics, our global outlook, and our ability to see each other as fellow humans.

Many of the biggest problems we face in this moment as a society result from decisions being made by the hidden creators of our digital world — the designers, developers, and editors that create and curate the media we consume.

During the lead up to World War I, unchecked propaganda from all sides in the news reached a fever-pitch, with every belligerent participating in a massive fight for public opinion. By the end of the war it was clear that information warfare was a powerful weapon — it could raise armies, incite violent mobs, and destabilize whole nations.


‘Headline Packaging’. It’s the way in which a news story is contextualized, or packaged, specifically to garner more clicks. The person who writes the headline is rarely the author of the story itself.

As Fusion editor Felix Salmon recently wrote, “The amount of time and effort put into ‘packaging’ a story can significantly exceed the amount of time and effort that went into writing it in the first place.”

The problem with this is that the majority of people who see these posts on social media don’t actually click through to read the articles themselves. For many users, the headline itself becomes the story, even if it doesn’t resemble the original factual event.