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Join The Resistance

It has been a week of delight for central bankers. The Swiss people showed great maturity in their approval of the current monetary system by overwhelmingly rejecting the “Sovereign Money” initiative, the Fed pursued its tightening with confidence, and the ECB announced the beginning of the end of its ultra-loose monetary policy. That said, Mr. Draghi’s rather timid move brought back memories of the French comedian Coluche when announcing that he decided to go on a serious diet, with his first step being to stop having bread on the side when eating pasta.

My 20-year MBA reunion at M.I.T. Sloan last week-end coincided with the Institute’s Commencement ceremony. It is the season. Inspiring speeches are made by leaders at universities around the United States. Positive emotions run high with messages full of optimism and hope. Commencement speakers promote peace and love on earth and draw full engagement from graduates, friends and families with an immediate, contagious reaction. I have pasted selected excerpts from various speeches below.

It is a rare moment for an audience to be naturally receptive to such messages. More generally, hope and optimism tend not to be overly marketed because they simply do not sell well (see McGill study for example). In fact, out of context, the excerpts below can be derided as platitudes and met with a shrug. Instead, negative emotions such as fear, disappointment, frustration or anger do a much better job at driving emotions, and thus engagement. David Rock explains it here (check minute 20:40 and thereafter).

This simple fact has perverse implications for social media. There, algorithms developed to control users’ news feed are geared to drive emotions and engagement to the point of addiction since ‘clicks’ drive revenues. In his latest book entitled “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier notes that ‘since the core strategy of the [social media] business model is to let the system adapt automatically to engage you as much as possible, and since negative emotions can be utilized more readily, of course such system is going to tend to make you feel bad.’

Social media algorithms, if left unchecked, have an inherent tendency to prioritize negative news (whether real or fake) which eventually drives extremist positions. Mr. Lanier goes as far as suggesting that social media have an incentive to promote a just cause (e.g. “Black Lives Matter”) whilst the algorithms use that same cause to provoke engagement from an opposing one which would not have been engineered otherwise. No wonder many countries are subject to increasing political polarization. It drives ads revenues!

Leaders’ responsibilities may be greater than they have ever been under these circumstances. As Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau stated in his commencement address to NYU graduates: “Leadership has always been about getting people to act in common cause. […] It usually required convincing, or coercing, a specific group to follow you. And the easiest way to do that has always been through tribal contrasts. […] But the leadership we need most today and in the years to come is leadership that brings people together. That brings diversity to a common cause. […] It’s always been easier to divide than to unite.”

Promoting peace and love in politics, at schools and in the workplace is critical to counter social media’s inherently devious tendencies. At work, corporate slogans about ethical behavior, team work or customer focus can easily be greeted with cynicism by employees. Managers must bear the responsibility to promote them on a daily basis with the same fervor as that displayed by Commencement speakers, especially as it takes a lot more effort to drive engagement with positive than with negative messages.

Democracy is being pushed in a corner by social media algorithms. It is time to build the resistance.

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