Oct 9, 2021
Martin Goodson

Weaponised Psychology

How Facebook turns your demons against you - and what you can do about it.

A whistleblower gives an insight into how big tech uses emotional triggers to increase clicks. Developing emotional intelligence can give us a bulwark against being manipulated in this way.

Scream and Shout


By Mindaugas Danys from Vilnius, Lithuania, Lithuania - scream and shout, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44907034

This week, just when you thought life could not get more perilous, with long queues at petrol stations, a shortage of lorry drivers and PM Boris Johnson not ruling out further COVID restrictions this winter, Facebook went offline for seven hours.

In fact, not just Facebook but also WhatsApp and the platform for GenZ creatives, Instagram, were also taken down. Facebook owns all of them. It’s not clear why it happened, but according to one report, the trouble was exacerbated at the huge server farm which houses data for the company. The ‘internet of things’ meant that no-one could open the server door to switch it off and then switch it back on again. Curious to think that it was the lesson 101 of ‘how to fix your technology’ which seemed to re-boot the websites - once they jemmied the door open.

What was even more curious was that at almost the same time, in Washington, a Facebook whistleblower called Frances Haugen was testifying before Congress about a change to a Facebook algorithm back in 2018 that delivers curated content to users. The important point here is the type of content that Facebook deliberately uses to trigger ‘negative emotional responses’ to its users in order to increase engagement, increase clicks and drive up advertising revenues.

Here’s a segment from independent media site Breaking Points which gives a clear analysis of how it works and the psychological effects on users:

Breaking Points: Facebook Crash

Any organism is going to try to survive and grow and we surely should not be surprised that human-created organisations, however well-meaning their PR sounds, will be aiming to do the same in the world economy. But it is important to realise that there is going to be this tendency to manipulate the audience, not for their benefit but for its own bottom line. What Krystal and Saagar are pointing out here is that the battlefield where this plays out is the field of emotionality, that is yours and mine.

The internet is increasingly taking over every aspect of our lives, despite some pockets of resistance from those who are holding out, by not getting a smartphone. However, resistance will become increasingly futile as more and more of our lives go online. There is a push by think tanks and some governments to get rid of cash altogether and for all currency to go digital. If this were to happen then the only way to access money will be to spend it by digital means. The pandemic lockdowns have already acclimatised us to meeting our work colleagues and family virtually and even attending Zazen meditation classes and sesshin retreats online. So, it is essential for us to realise that we are increasingly open to subtle emotional manipulations whilst surfing around the internet; quite often we might not even be aware that it is happening until we are triggered.

This highlighted to me just how important the Zen training is when it comes to awareness of the emotional household and the practices around restraint of impulses and the understanding of what happens when we ‘feed the beast’, so to speak. This is what is called ‘emotional intelligence’ after the 1995 self-help book of the same name by Daniel Goleman.

Where could I find enough leather to cover the whole earth? But by the leather of one pair of sandals the earth will be covered.

External circumstances cannot be guarded against. But if I guard my own Heart and Mind, what other protection is needed? (Shantideva)

No doubt there will be calls for more regulation and, as called for by Frances Haugen the Facebook whistle-blower, for more transparency. Maybe it will happen, but given that emotionally triggering its audience also works to make Facebook money (and let’s not forget what works for one will work for all), and that these corporations have vast resources, for lobbying governments, at their disposal, I’m not too sure that I would trust my mental well-being to their hands.

So, what’s the alternative?

Rather than expecting the ‘world’ and its corporations to look after us, it puts the onus back on us to realise that we do have a powerful resource of our own - the Buddha’s teachings and practices.

The sutta on The Four Foundations of Mindful Awareness, found in the Pali Canon, instructs us to first develop a constant awareness and vigilance in our own bodies. Why? Because it is here that emotions manifest in a visceral way and we must learn to read the signs. We must learn to recognise the emotional energy that feeds into cognitions that defend and attack and karmically deepen our addictions to triggering fantasies. It is like the argument that we play on our inner video screen again and again, tying us into a cycle of emotions that can see ‘me’ alternately victor and loser with all the surrounding emotionality it evokes.

It is like the rabbi who said to his students: “Inside me there are two wolves, one black and one white who are in a constant struggle.” One student asked: “In the end which one will win?” The rabbi replied: “Whichever one I feed.”

So, learning to recognise what is happening and then de-clutching, using a breath, a bow, rowing back from the stimulus. Taking time away from media and social media, opening to the world around us and re-connecting with it and recognising the light and dark in our own hearts too. Of course, there is the nagging feeling that ‘I’ am right and ‘This’ is right. And that if ‘I’ don’t do something then we all go to ‘hell in a handcart’. There are righteous causes, but a bull in a china shop does no good and if we become the monsters we seek to fight then we only increase the sum total of suffering in the end.

This is why putting the world to rights must begin with ourselves.

As the Buddha said - In this fathom long body, lies the world, the origin of the world (of suffering), the ending of the world and the way to the ending of the world.

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