We’re a long way from the days when congressmen pummelled one another on the floor of the Senate and public figures settled disagreements by dueling. That doesn’t mean, of course, that conflict in the public sphere has disappeared. It’s simply migrated online. Log onto Twitter and you’re likely to see political leaders or celebrities skirmishing with 280-character missives. Get lost on YouTube and your recommendations might send you down a rabbit-hole of hateful content, as reported by The New York Times in June of this year. The avalanche of negativity on social media is held as a bellwether for the general decay of civic discourse, but is this really what audiences—and Americans—want?
According to recent research by YouGov, the answer is a resounding “no.” The overwhelming majority of Americans surveyed reject wanting provocative or conflict-oriented content online, with only 3 percent reporting a desire to engage in fights on social media. So why do platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube continue to reward and prioritize controversy and polarization? According to Angela Carola, Managing Director of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences and a Managing Director at The Webbys, the web’s tendency to amplify conflict is driven by the financial incentive for major platforms to lean into, or outright promote, divisive content and voices.
This was the subject of the recent talk by Carola titled “Under the Influence: How the Internet exploits our thirst for a good fight, and leaves us wanting more,” hosted by Athletics on the 26th of September at our Williamsburg studio. Over beers and snacks, Carola shared recent statistics revealing the significant mismatch between audience preferences and platform behaviors, using the data to explore the nature of social conflict in the digital age. The talk kicked off the annual Webbys Talks tour.
Check the Webbys Talks schedule to see if The Webbys are visiting a city near you!