Social media acts like a drug on our social behavior, changing how we think about right and wrong and fomenting social division by design in order to boost the profits of a few tech giants, argues author Max Fisher.
“It is a drug that 80% of Americans take a dozen times a day,” says Fisher. “And if you work in the media or you’re a young person multiple that several dozen times. We are living in a world where the vast majority of the population is taking a mood-altering drug multiple times a day.”
The investigative journalist has covered the impact of social media extensively for The New York Times. For his book, The Chaos Machine, he interviews researchers, psychologists, whistleblowers, and Silicon Valley executives to paint a coruscating picture of the current state of social media.
“The result is the single most complete understanding of how social media has rewired our brains, our culture and our politics that I have ever read,” says Offline podcast host Jon Favreau, who spoke with Fisher about his new book during a recent episode.
From the creation of the Facebook newsfeed and Gamergate to the election of Donald Trump, Fisher “traces the origins of our current political shitshow to many of the internet most consequential moments,” says Favreau.
Fisher argues persuasively that it is not just social media algorithms that are the problem, but the fundamental design of the platforms themselves.
Extremism isn’t just amplified but created by social media, which Fisher concludes may be the most destructive force in society today.
In the book, he details how the polarizing effect of social media is speeding up. Here is a key excerpt:
“Remember that the number of seconds in your day never changes. The amount of social media content competing for those seconds, however, doubles every year or so. Imagine, for instance, that your network produces 200 posts a day of which you have time to read about 100. Because of the platform’s tilt, you will see the most outraged half of your feed. Next year, when 200 doubles to 400, you will see the most outraged quarter, the year after that the most outraged eighth. Over time, your impression of your own community becomes radically more moralizing, aggrandizing, and outraged, and so do you see, at the same time, less innately engaging forms of content.”
Watch This: Author Max Fisher Joins MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to Discuss The Chaos Machine
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Podcaster Rich Roll also spoke with Fisher, covering the specific ways social media changes the morality of its users, and how algorithms can make users more prone to violence.
“This is an admittedly scary but crucial conversation about how social media’s reach and impact run far deeper than we have previously understood,” Roll says. “I’ve become increasingly convinced that the impact of social media and technology on our lives and the lives of our children is one of the great existential threats to social cohesion.”
Fisher writes that social media polarizes and radicalizes us because of the choices that algorithms make. But why is it that among the whole spectrum of things that the algorithm could show us, the things they choose to show us are the outrageous, polarizing ones?
“Because those are the things that are most engaging to us and speak to a sense of social compulsion, of a group identity that is under threat,” he explains to NPR’s Ari Shapiro.
Read the full interview transcript here.
The enjoyment of moral outrage is one of the key sentiments Fisher sees being exploited by algorithms devised by Google (for YouTube) and Meta (for Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp), which “discovered they could monetize this impulse by having their algorithms promote hyperpartisanship,” notes Tamsin Shaw in her review for The New York Times. “Divisiveness drives engagement, which in turn drives advertising revenues.”
Fisher goes in-depth into the impact of social media sowing discord in Sri Lanka. He links posts amplifying the division of Sri Lankan society directly to the violence that then took place on the streets. He claims that Sri Lankan officials begged Facebook to do something before violence broke out and were routinely ignored.
“What amazing is that if you go and look back at internal conversations within YouTube they explicitly said, our goal should not be to surface the best information,” Fisher told NPR. “[YouTube’s] goal [it said] should be to surface content that will get people to spend more time on the platform. And they were saying this right at the start of what would turn out to be arguably the most consequential election in American history.”
“Social media is a drug that 80% of Americans take a dozen times a day. And if you work in the media or you’re a young person multiple that several dozen times. We are living in a world where the vast majority of the population is taking a mood altering drug multiple times a day.”— Max Fisher
Fisher says that no one in Silicon Valley deliberately set out to write an algorithm to surface the most polarizing content but that now the system has taken hold, shareholders aren’t keen to change it since doing so would directly impact their profit.
“The thing is these people do not ultimately have the authority and the power within these companies. The people who have the authority in the power are — just like in any major corporation, are the profit drivers. And those are the people who get that traffic up so they can sell ads against it and continue to make billions and billions of dollars. And that is the thinking that prevails in which Sri Lanka. They don’t even make that much money there.”
What Can Be Done?
So how do we thwart the algorithmic overlords from abusing the infrastructure that is beginning to rule the world? Is there a way to change the model so companies are not so incentivized to feed people outrageous stuff that’ll keep them glued to the platform for hours?
Whenever Fisher asked experts these questions, their solution was always some version of turning it off, “not turning off the entire platform, not shuttering the website, but turning off the algorithm, turning off likes, the little counter at the bottom of the post that shows you how many people liked it or retweeted it,” Fisher told NPR. “That’s something that even [former Twitter head] Jack Dorsey floated as an idea because he came to see that as so harmful.”
A version of social media without these engagement-maximizing features, could, Fisher thinks, potentially mitigate some of the harms.
“His answers may not make us much more hopeful that we can actually regulate social media but they may help us understand how we can all reclaim some agency back from these platforms and restore a little sanity to our lives,” says Favreau.
Fisher went further with in interview with Linsey Davis for ABC News. “There are a lot of people who work at the big social media companies whose job is to reduce misinformation, reduce extremism, reduce recruitment for far right terrorist groups, but they are fighting a losing and in many senses, unwinnable battle.
“Not because there’s something about social media that means that misinformation and hate are going to always be on there but because these platforms are deliberately designed to ramp up engagement in the most ruthless possible ways these companies can come up with.
“You can’t clean it up as long as the companies are doing that but it’s also, at least in theory, relatively easy to fix because all the companies have to do is turn off these engagement-maximizing features, and a lot of this problem goes away. But they’re not going to do that.”
“This is an admittedly scary but crucial conversation about how social media’s reach and impact run far deeper than we have previously understood. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the impact of social media and technology on our lives and the lives of our children is one of the great existential threats to social cohesion.”— Rich Roll
A lot of the people who spoke with Fisher are apparently still true believers in the theoretical potential of a more neutral social media that does not have these engagement-maximizing features.
“They believe [that social media can be a] major force for good in the world. But the problem is just these engagement-maximizing features are just overpowering that good and creating a lot of harm in the world.”
READ MORE: Social media preys on vulnerability of users to create algorithms, author says (ABC News)
The New York Times (arguably biased because it employs Fisher) called the account “authoritative and devastating,” noting that Fisher repeatedly invokes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a supercomputer coldly kills astronauts.
“As a story about trying to fix a wayward technology as it hurtles out of control, it is beautifully apt,” Shaw, who teaches philosophy and politics at New York University, writes in her review.
She adds that the way the book connects the dots between Facebook’s gleaming (space-ship like) corporate HQ and the riots, radicalism and conspiracy “is utterly convincing and should obliterate any doubts about the significance of algorithmic intervention in human affairs.”
One of the tech industry’s biggest open secrets, Fisher writes, is that “no one quite knows how the algorithms that govern social media actually work.”
He quotes Mark Zuckerberg’s “astoundingly naïve view that “there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about.”
But none of this absolves Meta or Google from blame. “WhatsApp and YouTube play in fomenting genocidal hate,” says Shaw.
“There are of course facts on the ground that determine the algorithm’s effects, the local susceptibility to disinformation, the explosiveness of the divisions. And this highlights an important point: Millions of people use social media without succumbing to conspiracy theories or allowing moral outrage to escalate into violence.”
Human judgment and morality, in other words, aren’t reducible to instinctual drives that can be manipulated. So, Shaw insists, we need to ask not just what makes some people susceptible to manipulation, but also what in the mind’s “wiring” protects others, even in lives saturated with social media.
“The answer will presumably include education, and will span the range from individual critical thinking skills to the overall quality of the information environment.”
The lesson of Fisher’s book, Shaw concludes, is that we need to make individual members of societies resistant to such efforts.
“We have the means to do so if the political will is strong enough, and if our political system hasn’t yet been wrecked by the chaos machine.”