28/04/2017 06:41 BST | Updated 28/04/2017 06:41 BST

We Are Being Manipulated - And We Love It

If you are constantly being exposed to the same kind of stories through your social media feeds and you find that agree with the basic message, you could be being manipulated.

But you're not stupid. You know this.

We all know that our data (social media and browsing habits) are used to shape the selection of stories and content that might be interesting to us.

In fairness, the tabloids have been doing this for years. We are suckered into the Story Trap, the selection of facts and angles to create narratives we love.

This can't come as a surprise to you.

When we read of Davids squaring up against Goliaths, we all know deep down that David isn't really all that weak and spindly and the Goliaths, well, they're not that bad. Actually, we know them quite well and would probably count them as friends had we been invited into their worlds.

But we love the story.

Triumphing Over Tragedy

And when we read of people who have been successful and fallen only to recover through religion, inner strength, the help of friends or chance encounters on a road to Damascus, we know that this is a Triumph Over Tragedy, a TOT, a timeless piece of narrative that is anecdote-ready and set up to be shared over dinner, a drink or on the walk to the pub in the evening.

We can't wait to get our hands on tales of Overnight Successes, those who have gone from Rags To Riches and Local Lads Who've Made Good (everyone is local somewhere).

And schadenfreude - the delight in others' misfortune - well, we lap that up, sad to say. It makes us feel warm inside that it wasn't us. And we may secretly think that they always deserved it - they had it coming.

We are a culture that loves a few stories. We want to read, see and hear them over and over again. We are also prone to what Nassim Taleb calls the Narrative Fallacy: "The fallacy is associated with our vulnerability to overinterpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths" (The Black Swan). We make bits of information into stories even where there may be no connection.

But here's the thing: life is not story-ready.

And when we either create or share tales, we simplify, sometimes to the point of excluding meaning and the joyful, messy complexity of the everyday. But worse, we make ourselves vulnerable to the exclusion of the subtle but important meaning that allows us to understand the world as it really may be.

And the more we do this, the more we go for the strong angle, we allow ourselves to be seduced by those who present the world as simple, a one-silver-bullet-will-sort-it-out kind of place.

We're doing it to ourselves

The worst of this is that we're doing it to ourselves. Nobody is forcing us to over-simplify, to live in a world of goodies and baddies. Content providers merely provide the substance.

We seek out material that confirms our point of view. We selectively read things. We exclude the stuff that doesn't fit (with our world view). We ignore our own prejudices and biases.

And we bask in the self-indulgent light of knowing how right we are.

Now and then such indulgences may be harmless. Jousting over dinner is one thing but losing our critical faculty is quite another.

Now, the ever presence of fake news has got the social media companies a-flapping.

In truth, the solution to weeding out fake news lies not in software solutions but in retaining our ability to think and question what we see, read and hear.


Start by challenging propositions, particularly those you agree with. The more you want to believe something, the more you should actively question it.

Next, keep your mind open to the possibility that everything you hold dear may just be plain wrong.

Question the motives of those sharing information, news, stories, jokes, anecdotes and any kind of content with us. It could be that there is no personal motive. AI-driven content procurement may be filling your feed. But it could be that every time you hear a small number of repeated words and phrases, they've been designed to get you to believe one thing rather than another.

There's an election going on: just saying.

Repeated exposure of simple attractive propositions eventually will come to equal a form of truth, in our minds at least. Repeated "truths" play to our prejudices and biases. Algorithms can work out our view of the world by monitoring out social media likes.

Sit back and enjoy the ride?

Of course, you could be enjoying the ride. Well-written stories are fun to read. The trouble is that they inform our world-view, the choices we make and the ways we behave.

Humans are, by instinct, energy-conserving creatures. We still save up effort like we did when we might have to dash for cover seeking to avoid a predator. We have to force our brains to work. Coasting in our preferred mode. And thinking is tiring.

Questioning narratives takes time and effort. Challenging everything can be exhausting. And for the most part, we probably can't be bothered.

But consider the alternative.

If your Facebook likes and social media habits (already being data-crunched) are added to your internet browsing history (which could be sold in due course), companies and major organisations will know more about you than your partner (and maybe even yourself).

This means that AI-driven content providers will be able to push information to you that presses all of your buttons. You will be nudged and tipped repeatedly. You'll have your very own content bubble in which your peculiar world view is just right.

Which may be okay by you. Stories are entertaining. But it may be that as you trundle through your daily diet of heroes and villains, winners and losers (and great pictures), that you're missing what's really going on out there.

Just a thought.