cost per conversion

"you've been zucked" grafitti on a wall For some reason the phrase “cost per conversion” came into my head the other day. There’s a whole lexicon of internet marketing lingo that is gibberish to me, speaking in tongues while praising the pursuit of wealth. This phrase has to do with how much it costs to place a digital ad that actually results in someone doing what you want them to do, like buy a thing or do a thing. It’s built into the everyday experience of social media, where all of our interactions are measured and rewarded in terms of whether people looked at what we post or share, whether they clicked or shared or commented. And it’s very much shapes our political discourse online.

This phrase was on my mind while doomscrolling the latest on Putin’s unconscionable invasion of Ukraine and thinking about the role of disinformation in this war of aggression. Though there are credible reports of substantial unhappiness in Russia about this war (from bravely protesting and getting arrested to simply being shocked and uneasy in private), there has been a years-long disinformation campaign waged by Putin that suggests Ukraine doesn’t really exist except as a part of Russia, that Ukrainians are killing Russian babies (the genocide lie), and that Ukraine’s government is full of Nazis. This last claim seems bizarre, given its president is Jewish, but it’s part of an effort to rebrand the holocaust. No, it wasn’t about Jews at all, it was about good Christian Slavs, they were the real victims. Timothy Snyder has pointed out how much this purposeful way of using language is intended to render words meaningless so that Putin can do what he wants to do. Anything is possible, and nothing is true.

As this is going on, the American far right is cheering on Putin, because he is attempting to do what they would like to do: use violence to establish a Christian nationalist authoritarian state. And when I say Christian, I mean their warped version of it; forget about welcoming strangers or caring for others. Like Putin, the far right renders words meaningless strategically. To talk about racism is to commit racism (against oppressed white people), for example. And a cacophony of disinformation is a primary method of destabilizing society. Though, unlike Putin, they don’t control the means of news production entirely, they are building on decades of right-wing media production and have been very good at flooding the zone with shit.

While doomscrolling, I noticed a paper that a friend linked to that tied these thoughts together for me, philosopher C. Thi Nguyen writing about how Twitter changes communication by gamifying it. What happens to our conversations on Twitter is that they are shaped by its mechanical rewards system which privileges pleasure over meaning. As he puts it,

We get those extra motivational elements — pleasure, fun, engagement — in exchange for substantively changing the goals of the activity, and so changing the activity itself. The gamified design of Twitter influences discourse by inviting its users to change the goals of their participation in discourse — to simplify those goals in exchange for pleasure.

He describes two ways we get pleasure on Twitter (and other gamified platforms): by joining echo chambers, where we feel affirmed, and through indulging in moral outrage. An echo chamber, he explains, isn’t a place where you’re isolated from dissonant information. They are “structures of manipulated trust.” In an echo chamber you believe in what the people in the chamber believe, and all of you distrust everyone outside it. This explains how people in echo chambers can have deep knowledge of ideas that they dismiss and distrust. (And it’s is why presenting them with facts or reasoned arguments is a fool’s errand. They’re ready for you, and they don’t trust a word you say.) As for moral outrage, it’s cheap and it’s often virally contagious.

In terms of the business model, all of this gamification is done in order to keep us on a platform so we will see and act on digital ads. It influences the ways we interact with information, and with each other. Oddly enough, targeted digital ads don’t actually work very well. Well, they work for data brokers, because it helps them gather a lot of data to sell, and it works for Google and Facebook because that’s how they make money. But there’s not much evidence people actually buy stuff because the ads put in front of them were crafted to match their personal profile. Tim Hwang calls this realization as “the time bomb at the heart of the internet.”

But it’s not just about selling stuff. These platforms appear to be frighteningly effective at delivering propaganda at scale to people who are susceptible to particular messages, through building communities, creating out-groups, and stirring up strong emotions. Places like Twitter are great for this. If you want to sway people politically or morally you combine the social cohesion of echo chambers with the power of moral outrage porn, then add gamification, so quick, pleasurable rewards are doled out regularly and real communication withers.

In the old days, you had to work at it to find susceptible people and coax them to join a movement. Now it’s relatively easy for people to be converted at a relatively low cost – except to society.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash





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