How Big Tech Weaponizes Our Shame

SHame can be described as an emotional, instinctual reaction. Shaming someone else can lead to anger or shame. Big Tech firms are trying to take advantage of our human instincts, which have historically saved our reputations, and kept our lives safe. We are being unfairly pitted against one another. It doesn’t have to be like this. What I’ve learned–in part from very personal experience–is that shame comes in a number of forms and the better we understand it, the better we can fight back.

Shame is an effective social tool that coerces its target to follow a common norm. However, it is not the type of shame that is popular on social media. It is the punching down kind of shame, where the target can’t choose to be conformist even though they try. What about the obese woman in Walmart who fell asleep on her chair? Viral. The overdose victim Shamed. What happens to kids without lunch money? They are inked on the arms

Shame’s secondary goal is arguably more effective on social media, namely to broadcast the norm for everyone to see what mistakes look like. When we see yet another phone video of an outrageous public “Karen” situation, it can conceivably be seen as a learning situation for everyone else.

What are the lessons we’re learning? I’d argue the lessons are bad. The subsequent viral shame was swift, overly simplified and often left little context. The shame often backfires when we hear more from the target. This leaves the alleged Karen undefiant, rather than being apologetic and finding common ground with similarly defiant people.

The underlying social problem revealed by Karen is not addressed. White women have an outsized amount of power, particularly over Black men, because of a bias in police history. That problem won’t be solved simply by making white women use such power off camera. This means that the shameful approach to shaming women in general is not directed at the right place.

It doesn’t matter how badly shame is played out. This is precisely the way that big tech companies designed it. It’s not hard to remember that I was once a data scientist working in online advertising. I would decide who deserved an opportunity and who did not, based on who had spent money in the past and who hadn’t. My mission was to make luckier people and less fortunate people happy.

And that’s a general rule. Most online algorithms quantify and profile you, putting a number on how much you’re worth, whether it’s to sell you a luxury item or to prey upon you if they deem you vulnerable to gambling, predatory loans, or cryptocurrencies. Advertisers who discover your vulnerabilities and exploit them in turn will also benefit. Once I realized that I was contributing to a horrible system being built, I quit.

What I didn’t realize even then was how much shame sells. Many years later, as I researched bariatric surgeries to help me avoid diabetes, I came across online advertisements that labeled me vulnerable to liposuction, fad diets and plastic surgery. Even though I was aware of the reasons my internet environment was overloaded with these advertisements and their methods for manipulating me online, it still had an impact on my mental health. The ads were optimized to target my vulnerability and fatness.

The data scientists for social media are only interested in one thing. They want to pay sustained attention. That’s why online we are made to feel so very comfortable, surrounded by like-minded friends, perhaps thousands of them. It’s big enough to feel like we’re “in society” but of course it’s actually quite small, a minute corner of the world. By using algorithms, the differences we have with other members of our group are brought to our attention. The agreements we make with one another are also filtered out, rendering them virtually invisible.

The automated stimulation of shame-based anger triggers us and makes it easier to engage in virtue signaling. The shame train is a way to receive dopamine boosts and feel good about ourselves. That we get accolades from our inner circle only serves to convince us once again that we’re in the right and that everyone outside our circles are living in sick cults. It turns what was supposed to be socially cohesive into an act of performance. As we spend hours on the platforms, trying to tear each other down, it becomes nothing more than a show.

What’s particularly tragic about all of this is that the shame doesn’t work at all; it is inherently misdirected. In order for shame to be effective, it must first work in the context of convincing someone to act. Second, they need to agree on norms, trust and have the option to choose to comply and expect that others will notice their good behavior. These preconditions rarely are met online in the chaotic free-for all.

We have had differences of opinions for a long time; that’s nothing new. We are not each other’s enemy even now, even though it can seem like that. Big Tech successfully impedes us from building unity and fighting against our real enemy by pitting us against one another in endless shame spirals. We must first critically examine their manipulative ways and label them as shame machines.

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