Max Fisher’s The Chaos Machine: How Social Media’s Battle For Eyeballs Is Driving Us Crazy

Social networks “chop our minds” and produce effects that are simply infuriating. This is what New York Times journalist Max Fisher argues in his new book The Chaos Machine.

In less confident hands, this statement might read as hyperbolic and similar in tenor to the feverish tone of most online discourse. Fisher, however, is a seasoned journalist who has covered the rise of social media for many years. Unlike online “flame wars” that burn brightly but have the intellectual depth of a puddle, his analysis is well-argued, engaging, and often necessarily uncomfortable.

The Chaos MachinePerhaps its greatest achievement is the skill with which it traces seemingly disparate phenomena — Gamergate, QAnon, civil unrest in Myanmar, growing polarization in the West, thriving anti-vax Facebook groups among many examples — until ‘to designing social media platforms that prioritize engagement at all costs.

Fisher repeatedly shows Silicon Valley’s reluctance to reign over their creations or acknowledge their downsides. “Engagement” cannot be disrupted, even when it shows a distinct predilection for escalating tensions or when it spills dramatically into the offline world, as was the case in the attack on January 2021 against the US Capitol. Videos of cute cats or incitement to overthrow a democratically elected government, it’s all fair in the battle for the eyeballs that is the digital attention economy.

Fisher’s experiences as a journalist with rare access to social media executives are telling. They are, as he puts it, “dutiful and ultra-qualified people”, but they seem bewildered when asked about what looks like an elephant in the room.

“[A]At some point in every interview,” he wrote of Facebook meetings, “when I asked about the dangers that stemmed not from bad actors misusing the platform, but from the platform itself, it would be as if a mental wall were erected.

Again and again, these executives point to the role of human misbehavior on social media, but fake an essential element: how these platforms are actively designed to manipulate users’ motivations and experiences so that they click, scroll and share.

Social media companies don’t make a product in the traditional sense. They don’t manufacture hardware; instead, they create vast networks of potential consumers that can be delivered to advertisers and marketers. This conception is not fortuitous; it is at the heart of the immense wealth and power these companies enjoy.

Given this fact, there is something troubling about this reluctance to openly consider the effects and flaws of their product design. Of his visits to Facebook, Fisher writes, “It was like walking into a cigarette factory and being told by executives that they didn’t understand why people kept complaining about the health effects of the little tins. in cardboard that they were selling.


Max Fisher, author of The Chaos Machine. Photo by Francisco Prone

Max Fisher, author of The Chaos Machine. Photo by Francisco Prone

Behind closed doors, however, it would seem that Facebook is aware of the problems with its platforms. As Fisher writes, internal research conducted by the company in 2018 and disclosed to the the wall street journalfound: “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to division.”

If the algorithms that determine what we see or don’t see on our screens every day were driven primarily by humans with monitoring responsibilities, that would be one thing. However, as Fisher points out, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms are largely left to their own devices. What exactly these devices are is something that activists, tech journalists and researchers have struggled to understand.

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“[N]o it is well known how the algorithms that govern social media actually work,” Fisher writes. “The systems operate semi-autonomously, their methods are beyond human reach.”

Simply put, algorithms are designed to give users more of what they want. But this frankness can have negative consequences when this quest for “more” pushes users towards increasingly extreme content. Without the moderating effects of human oversight, this rabbit hole effect can contribute to marginalization and radicalization.

YouTube, run by Susan Wojcicki, is the subject of particular criticism. Of his move to an AI-driven algorithm and the surge in user engagement that followed, Fisher writes, “It was like Coca-Cola stocking a billion machines soda with an AI-designed drink without a single human checking the contents of the bottles – and whether the drink-filling AI was programmed solely to increase sales without regard to health or safety.

The Chaos Machine – subtitle The inside story of how social media has rewired our minds and our world – joins a stable of modern journalism that not only captures the evils of social media in their current form, but also offers potential solutions. At a time of growing calls for platform regulation, Fisher makes the case for urgent and compelling change.


Max Fisher's Chaos Machine

Max Fisher’s Chaos Machine

Max Fisher’s Chaos Machine

Nonfiction: The Chaos Machine by Max Fisher
Quercus, 352 pages, hardcover €28, e-book £9.99

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