Provocative artist questions algorithms that turn us into “more ad revenue together”

Courtesy of Winston Tseng

Editor’s note: Deepnews.ai is a technology company, though we also like to look at conversations happening around the use of algorithms to highlight information online. This is one of the occasional posts we do speaking to someone with something to say on topics that we find interesting.

By Christopher Brennan

The conversation around the role of algorithms in our lives has taken to the streets … at least in mock advertisement form.

Posters from the provocative artist Winston Tseng, which have since earned him a cease and desist letter, were hung in New York City, parodying the “More Together” campaign that Facebook has launched promoting its Groups. 

They mimic Facebook’s real campaign, but instead of “Motorheads” or “Dog Lovers” the advertised groups are a 165-million “Conservative Targeting Group” and a 165-million “Liberal Targeting Group” that add up to the entirety of the US population and are “more ad revenue together.”

“The idea for ‘More Together,’ along with my Twitter series ‘Social Media Vitriol’ was to depict not only how these platforms function, but how we as a society behave on and use them,” Tseng told Deepnews.ai in an email exchange.

Tseng started on the idea in his characteristic cartoon style last December with Women’s March hats instead of COVID masks, though the ensuing months have been big ones for examination of the division on social media.

Highlights along the way include a blockbuster piece from the Wall Street Journal this spring that reported Facebook executives decided not to remedy problems of polarization and division as solutions would be “antigrowth” and come at the cost of engagement such as time spent, likes, share and comments. Last month civil rights activists also pushed dozens of companies to stop advertising on the platform in the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign.

“It seems like enough of society sees it now — and is thinking about it, talking about it — that their relationship with these platforms could start to change if they want it to. Or if maybe they don’t mind it at all, they continue to willingly participate, and to me that’s OK too,” the artist said. 

While they examine the way that we use social media, Tseng’s images have been a hit on social media itself, with pictures of them on the street receiving thousands of shares on platforms such as Twitter.

“I think a large part of it’s just the emotional play. If something elicits a strong emotional response from the viewer, they’re more likely to spread it either intentionally — by sharing, retweeting, reposting — or unintentionally by simply ‘engaging’ with the content, which then of course feeds into these platforms’ algorithms to spread it themselves. Another component is that of the unexpected, or unpredictable. Whether it’s the subject, the source, or any other part of it,” he said.

It is in fact not Tseng’s first time in the limelight of likes, as a previous set of posters caused controversy for the juxtaposition between stereotyped pictures of Trump supporters and Boston sports fans with a fake message from the Department of Sanitation.

“My “Keep NYC Trash Free” campaign had these [aforementioned] aspects, and ironically also played directly into the criticisms of FB we’ve been discussing,” Tseng said of his previous viral moment.

“It initially started spreading through a wave of positive responses from viewers that agreed with, or were at least amused by, the message. Once it eventually spread to the other side, there was a lot of ‘outrage’ and ‘misinformation’ in viewers believing it was a real campaign from the City of New York. That’s when it went to a whole other level, much much more ‘viral’ than my recent work.”

While it did not receive as much attention from media outlets, the new posters did get noticed by someone who stressed that Tseng was impeding the use of advertising from Facebook to support their business. The artist shared a letter he received from CityBridge, a company replacing old phone booths with kiosks, telling him to cease putting art on their booths. 

The letter said, “Our advertisers pay for their advertising space and it is unfair to them and may lead to conflict if CityBridge is unable to deliver upon the contracted advertising space if there is art in its place.”

Tseng told Deepnews.ai he believes that Facebook, cited specifically in the message, played a role in pressuring CityBridge to send the letter.

A representative cited in the letter did not immediately respond to a request for comment on what had prompted it. Facebook also did not respond to questions about the letter or the parody posters.

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