Feeding Impulses That Harm People

Two stories about very different industries – one very old and one very new – are demanding our attention right now. The new industry is social media. For weeks now, a litany of stories has made it plain that Facebook has made some bad choices to protect their profits while causing harm. The old industry is food. It is bigger and far less concentrated. But multinational food corporations get the blame for broken food systems that contribute to climate change and the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) harming the health of people in high and low income countries alike. Both industries are feeding impulses that harm people.

Reining in the harm that both industries are causing is not very easy.

Feeding the Impulse for Rage

The latest story on the Facebook rage machine comes again from Facebook’s own documentation. It describes how the Facebook platform became a tool for planning and executing the assault on the U.S. Capitol January 6. For social media, content that sparks strong emotions – like anger – is content that generates engagement. High engagement makes advertising more valuable and thus makes social media more profitable.

So when the election was over, Facebook removed measures to limit the possibility that the platform could play a role in causing mayhem. It constrained Facebook’s growth. The company also disbanded its Civic Integrity department.

As a result, Facebook became a critical tool for whipping up rage to spark an assault on the Capitol. Facebook employees saw it coming, but management largely dismissed the concerns. This is documented in a stream of internal messages like this one:

“All due respect, but haven’t we had enough time to figure out how to manage discourse without enabling violence? We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time, and we shouldn’t be surprised it’s now out of control.”

Whistleblower Frances Haugen told Congress that she has seen Facebook consistently prioritize its own profits over compelling public interests. Feeding passionate impulses of people on its platform is just too profitable to resist, even if it causes great harm. Like mental health issues for adolescents.

Feeding and Stimulating the Impulse for Food

A more subtle evolutionary process plays out in food systems. Barry Popkin and Shu Wen Ng label it a nutrition transition that fuels obesity and NCDs. The food industry grows ever more profits by selling ever more food to every person living on this planet. Every cog in the vast food marketing machine serves this purpose. Product development makes it a tasty object of desire. Advertising and promotion drums up demand. Distribution puts it at our fingertips. Pricing prompts us to buy more than our bodies need.

This is how the food industry is feeding a normal human impulse to seek food in a way that causes growing harm to the population through obesity and the other NCDs that result.

Focusing on Outcomes

Unfortunately, the impulse to regulate these two industries is not very effective. Much of it is focused on details of how these businesses operate. For social media, there’s a lot of focus on algorithms and safety protocols. For the food industry, taxes, labeling, and limits on advertising get a lot of attention.

But at the end of the day, both industries must be held to account for outcomes. The food industry must find a business model where profits grow when they feed people in a way that actually enhances their health. Selling more food with phony health claims doesn’t help.

Social media platforms must be accountable for providing a healthy flow of ideas and information. Feeding incoherent rage and false information is not an acceptable outcome.

Details matter, especially in regulation, but outcomes matter most.

Click here, here, here, and here for more on problems and solutions for social media. For more on a healthier future for the food industry, click here, here, and here.

Drinkers, painting by Vilmos Aba-Novak / WikiArt

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October 24, 2021

2 Responses to “Feeding Impulses That Harm People”

  1. October 24, 2021 at 9:36 am, John DiTraglia said:

    Umm corporations trying to maximize profit is not a surprise. The government is not always the best regulator. The best way to regulate faceless, brainless corporations is to stop buying their stuff. This could happen organically when people start to figure out that playing with fire is dangerous.

    • October 25, 2021 at 7:03 am, Ted said:

      Actually, John, many companies operate to balance the pursuit of profits with corporate responsibility and business ethics. Those that do not can be a hazard to their investors and to the public.