Review: The Chaos Machine

The Chaos Machine, Max Fisher. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2022.

Summary: A deep dive into how social media has rewired our minds and fueled social divisions.

If the events of the past years have not already done so, this book should give you pause about any of the social media platforms you use regularly. It did so for me.

Max Fisher looks at phenomena as diverse as the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the growth of anti-vaccine movements, and the political discord of our recent elections. He shows how these are not simply the result of zealots posting what is often false information or incendiary statements. Rather, he argues that there is something baked into our social media that turns these into potent movements that in some instances have led to the loss of life and the deception of many.

The issue is engagement. If all the things posted on any platform, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Reddit, were given equal weight, the postings of zealots, social media influencers, and bad actors from other countries would still have minimal effect–getting lost in the mass of material posted every day. What makes it different is that each of these platforms and others, in the pursuit of advertising dollars, where they make their money, promote the material that gets the most engagement through the algorithms that determine what we see when we visit one of these sites. Those algorithms are tailored to our interests and show us more of what we’ve viewed, liked, and clicked on.

But there is more. These platforms use recommendation engines that show you other content that is related to your interests, content that is getting a lot of engagement. And often this is inflammatory, engendering fear or anger. And this can lead people into groups that share that anger, that disengagement with society, and down a rabbit hole, away from family and friends in the real world.

What is chilling is Fisher’s account of the indifference of these platforms, even when their internal research calls attention to the effect of their algorithms. Often, government authorities, seeking to stop the spread of misinformation, find it impossible to even get a response from these platforms–unless they pull the plug on these platforms’ access to their countries. But in many countries, these platforms serve as the primary source of information for their people. Hence, the reluctance to take this step.

I found this a deeply disturbing trend. And in the light of the recent takeover of Twitter and the financial struggles of Meta, the parent company of Facebook, I think the chaos Fisher chronicles could easily increase–unless. Unless we educate ourselves about how these platforms work, how they show us content (or not), and make decisions of how we will engage them without being manipulated by them. But this is a big ask. All I know is that I am asking myself hard questions about how I will engage these platforms going forward–or whether I will continue to do so.

____________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.