The Science of Nudges

THE MACHINE OF CHAOS: The inside story of how social media has rewired our minds and our world

Author: Max Fisher

Editor: Little, Brown & Company

pages: 389

Price: $29

In Max Fisher’s authoritative and devastating tale of the impacts of social media, he repeatedly invokes Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The 1968 film, in which a supercomputer coldly kills astronauts on a ship bound for Jupiter, was on Fisher’s mind as he researched the book. Its austere and ambiguous aesthetic is perfectly balanced between utopia and dystopia. And as a story about trying to fix wayward technology as it spins out of control, it’s beautifully appropriate.

fisherman, a New York Times journalist who has reported on horrific violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, offers first-hand accounts from each side of a global conflict, focusing on the role Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube play in fomenting genocidal hatred . Alongside descriptions of stomach-churning brutality, he details the viral disinformation that fuels it, the fabricated accusations, often against minorities, of espionage, murder, rape and paedophilia. But he is careful not to assume causation where there may be a simple correlation. The book delves deeply into the question of whether specific features of social media are really responsible for mass fear and anger.

The pleasure of moral outrage is one of the key sentiments Fisher sees being exploited by algorithms designed by Google and Meta, who have found they can monetize this impulse by making their algorithms promote hyper-partisanship. . The division drives engagement, which in turn drives ad revenue. Fisher details the evolution of behavioral technologies that belie the many denials from corporate representatives that their platforms are inherently or intentionally manipulative.

These denials do not stand up either to the declared intentions of company founders. In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg wrote an essay claiming that the tech industry would provide the “social infrastructure” for a new stage in human relationships. Peter Thiel, one of the founders of the companies PayPal and Palantir, expressed unambiguously anti-democratic leanings as early as 2009, saying that the company could not be entrusted to “thoughtless demos”. He and his Silicon Valley peers, Fisher writes, saw the company as “a set of engineering problems waiting to be solved.”

The story of these oversized protagonists is one of pride and ignorance. In a culture with a high tolerance for gross simplification, tech billionaires are masked by the most cliched myths of genius: the white nerd displaying, to use Thiel’s phrase, “Asperger-like social incompetence” that is so often associated in popular media. culture (to the detriment of any real understanding of the autism spectrum) with scholarly gifts.

But the mythologies hide deep flaws. In the book’s opening scene, when Fisher is ushered into Facebook’s “steel and glass playground,” he carries leaked documents that outline the platform’s speech policies. There is no ordered or complete list, only disconnected PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets, scattered answers to complex geopolitical questions, outsourced guides with conflicting rules. This is what Facebook moderators are equipped with. One of the tech industry’s biggest open secrets, Fisher writes, is that “no one really knows how the algorithms that govern social media actually work.”

Fisher mentions Zuckerberg’s surprisingly naive view that “there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relations that governs the balance between who and what we all care about”. In Fisher’s rigorous quest to understand how social media might have “rewired our minds,” he interviews many psychologists about their college educations and uncovers insights that will fascinate readers. But he does not treat with skepticism the ultimate premises of a science that both created the harmful effects of social media and stands as their potential solution.

Since psychology has existed as an applied science, it has served two purposes: medical applications, for psychological illnesses; and military applications, in the field of psychological operations. But psychologists have increasingly embraced the role of social engineers. Social psychology exploits predictable forms of irrationality to “push” subjects in particular directions, whether online, at work, or in public policy. Positive psychology focuses on well-being and resilience, with the goal of addressing perceived social ills by valuing strengths and virtues. Both branches of psychology have treated humans as manipulable components of societies. And the most important studies on the effects of social media have taken place in these areas.

But the basic causal mechanisms still remain opaque. In Myanmar, where social media conspiracies have sparked support for the army’s ruthless campaign against the Rohingya, Fisher acknowledges that “no algorithm could generate such severe hatred out of thin air.” There are of course facts on the ground that determine the effects of the algorithm, the local susceptibility to misinformation, the explosiveness of divisions. And it highlights an important point: millions of people use social media without succumbing to conspiracy theories or letting moral outrage escalate into violence.

So we need to ask not only what makes some people susceptible to manipulation, but also what in the “wiring” of the mind protects others, even in lives saturated with social media. The answer will likely include education and span the gamut from individual critical thinking skills to the overall quality of the information environment.

The lesson of Fisher’s book is surely that we don’t need more heavenly inspirations for ambitious projects of human transformation. On the contrary, we must 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 has not yet been destroyed by the machine of chaos.


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