The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World
“The Chaos Machine is an urgent overview of an issue that is increasingly dominating the modern age.”
Max Fisher, a New York Times investigative journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist, has written a fascinating and provocative book that at first glance would appear to be about Big Tech but in fact is far more of a triste on humanity itself. It is a story of the evolution and consequences of social media as hugely powerful platforms that spread misinformation, amplify division, and create a “doom loop of polarization.”
Fisher highlights the disconnect between the high morals and ambitions of the CEOs of many of the world’s successful platforms and the havoc they wreck. Web algorithms that seek to capture the attention of users are at the heart of a problem that Fisher likens to the gradual understanding of the health side effects of smoking. Algorithms look to their ally dopamine, what Fisher describes as “social media’s accomplice inside your brain” that keeps us engaged. Social media companies know more about us than our governments and their systems of incentive to engagement and variable reinforcement prey on how humans socialize and develop their own identities.
Classic human dichotomies between “us and then” are the arenas in which “the largest outrage generating machine in history” make hay. Setting up a narrative of an in-group, an out-group, a crisis, and a solution primes people to action, and steadily we are learning the often deadly cost of how online behavior can cross over into real world carnage.
Fisher references studies revealing how “social media platforms make whole communities more prone to racism.” This ranges from being complicit in the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar to mob violence in Sri Lanka. It has poured fuel on notions of “status threat” and feelings of “collective peril” in dominant groups who then channel their “aggrieved entitlement” to minorities, refugees, and those who are perceived to challenge their positions in society.
Fisher tells the story of how this came to be by looking all the way back at the founders of these companies and how such powerful devices were designed “with little input from people outside of the (Silicon) Valley’s narrow worldview or demographic.” A male-dominated industry with a fervent belief in freedom of speech would clash with a financial model based around using algorithms to capture attention that would disproportionately impact on women and those outside of the USA. Fisher cites “Gamergate” in 2014 as a key moment in which the radicalisation of those online would start to show real life consequences. Here a loosely organized misogynistic online harassment campaign saw a right-wing backlash against feminism, diversity, and progressivism in video game culture. By 2016 “Pizzagate” had someone turning up armed with an automatic weapon at a fast-food restaurant in Washington, DC, based on a paedophile conspiracy they’d been fed online.
Often those most prone to be radicalised are not driven by hate but by purposelessness, and such is the power of the systems that they are a danger to us all. Systems that drive outrage appeal to our humanity and our enjoyment of being outraged. “Moral outrage is a social instinct” explains Fisher, going on to detail how it gives people clarity. Outrage online is impacting of tolerance offline, yet the platforms create their own reality rather than reflecting wider society. The “chaos machine” that Fisher describes has unleashed primordial behavior as moral emotional issues boost engagement and attention with the sites.
When combined with companies who are committed to aggressive growth the scale of the issues become clear. From “swating” (directing SWAT teams to peoples addresses) “doxing” (sharing personal information publicly) to revenge porn, hate speech, death threats, online shaming to a transition into those committing acts of violence, organizing themselves into militias or even becoming elected as politicians.
Algorithms that lack governance or effective moderation create filter bubbles that encourage hyper-partisanship. The January 6th riots in Washington were perhaps the most high-profile example of what Fisher describes as a “digital guided collective will.” Fisher can be guilty of overly dramatic language when the hard reality is scary enough in itself, and he also comes to a somewhat jarring end that could almost give the reader the sense that the Biden election has seen the issues he raised disappear. There is also a wider unanswered question as to why these algorithms radicalize right wing politics so much more than left wing equivalents. Nevertheless The Chaos Machine is an urgent overview of an issue that is increasingly dominating the modern age.