Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
By Robin L Harvey
Max Fisher set out to write the definitive book about the dangers social media has thrust upon the world. Its telling subtitle purports that it is an “Inside Story,” one that Fisher backs up with an impressive 32 pages of page note references.
Fisher has amalgamated the thoughts and theories of many, including social media insiders, experts and academic researchers, along with interviews with whistleblowers and executives from social media. He writes social media platforms, by design, are driven by an irresponsible economic model to seek an ever-expanding and addicted user base to boost profits.
They do this, Fisher says, by preying on instincts and fears bred into humanity over thousands of years. This hooks users with gambling and casino-like tricks that tap into our brains’ chemical wiring for responses to rewards. This never-ending quest for more user engagement, Fisher writes, promotes divisive, inflammatory posts, feeds and content, the more outrageous the better. And, with the advent of AI algorithms, (the workings of which, Fisher says, cannot be fully explained by anyone) human interactions fueled by moral outrage have spawned polarized opinions that can push users to destructive, unthinkable acts.
Fisher concludes social media demonizes differences and creates echo chambers of anger and hate, then amplifies them at lightening speed. The author is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, investigative reporter and foreign correspondent with the New York Times who has covered the social-media beat for several years. Are readers to give his theories credence because of his reputation and the extensive notes at the back of the book?
A good question. Fisher states in the book’s prologue he’s aimed to document a mission “to answer the question” … “what are the consequences of this technology?” Still, despite his research and the fact that he sheds much light on a pressing social issue, he fails. Fisher has synthesized an avalanche of disparate events to back up his ideas. He uses his interpretation of the emergence of Q-Anon, racist and anti-Semitic content on YouTube, the Facebook origins of the anti-vax movement, swatting and other dangerous trends that arose on reddit and 4-Chan, as well as the portrayal and treatment of women in video games, to show examples of social media evils.
Social media helped the rise of incel groups, supported by the perpetrator of the 2018 van attacks that killed 11 people and critically injured 15 others in Toronto in 2018, he writes. His list of events linked to social media includes anti-refugee beliefs in Germany that sparked violent riots, violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka that forced the government to shut down Facebook, and the murders of thousands after anti-Rohingya propaganda on social media in Myanmar. As well, social media was crucial in spawning the January sixth insurrection against American Capitol building, he writes. Fisher threads these events with own interviews with experts, social media mouthpieces and whistleblowers, interwoven with his interpretations of social science, behaviour psychology, political science and economics to draw his conclusions.
One of the book’s flaws is Fisher asks his readers to accept his theories as and fact. But often he cherry-picks examples to back up his ideas. And his personal bias overwhelms his approach. Fisher’s intense disdain for Donald Trump and the former president’s right-wing base is palpable, as is his snide contempt for Facebook and its co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. This is evident in the number of references in his notes regarding the platform and Zuckerberg (almost 50) and more than most topics by far. At times, Fisher’s writing engages in the same divisiveness he ascribes to social media.
His inflammatory language— describing social media engineers as having a “male geek misanthropic ideal” and “Asperger’s-like social ineptitude” … and creating a “digital culture built around nihilistic young men” described as “white, misogynistic geek males,” – goes far beyond commentary. His left-wing bias shows when he documents little about bad actors and events linked to the left. The reader may wonder if Fisher can be objective at all.
Sometimes he conflates correlation with causation – as when he cites research that showed Facebook users’ anti-refugee sentiment in Germany curtailed when the Internet access went down. He stretches the conclusions of teen bullying studies, writing they show teens bullied because their morals had been corrupted. But the studies only looked at how bullying changed when potential teen leaders were identified and asked to model anti-bullying behaviour. They did not gauge morality.
Fisher makes a similar mistake when he cites a Stanford/ New York University economic study that split Facebook users into two groups: one that turned off their accounts and one hat did not. The group that did was found to be happier, though less informed. However, the study had no control group to assess whether or not the changes were due to social media or other factors. Researchers focused only on mood, news consumption, knowledge accuracy and views on politics. Yet Fisher uses this study to build his theory that social media causes such changes in its users.
These two examples alone may make the reader question Fisher’s use of research. And though he poses his burning question about the impact of social media in his prologue, in the book’s epilogue Fisher turns trite. He describes social media as analogous to the computer Hal from the Stanley Kubrick film 2001 and urges us to “rip” social media’s “tentacles from the systems” governing elements in our lives. Simply and bluntly put, he urges the world to, “shut it down.” This drastic solution would be unworkable and have significant repercussions as witnessed when Facebook, in a pique about government regulation in Australia, shut down its platform to the outrage of human-rights groups, users, and many governments worldwide.
Yes, social media, as Fisher states, has reached much of the planet, and at times substantial-sized groups of users have been spurred to acts of violent moral outage. But like most human behaviour, social media use falls along a continuum. Many social media users, if not most, do not fall prey to conspiracy theories. Their beliefs are not manipulated so they turn to acts of violence.
Sadly, Fisher puts little focus on what many see as the real machine causing humanity’s current chaos – the Internet itself. The advent of the Internet has changed almost every human relationship and interaction, resulting in significant pitfalls and benefits for our societies, economies and governance. Social media is just one part of this sea change.
There are legitimate concerns about interference in democracies by outside governments. But who is naive enough to think that any government or deep state that can, has not and will not try to manipulate social media to force power and politics to its favour? Fisher rightly states that Facebook’s leadership, when warned of potential problems, did little or nothing to prevent them. Its carelessness has sent many government son the path to regulating the platform, and elements of the Internet in general.
Still, we must not forget the tech giants Fisher cites for irresponsible behaviour could not exist without the Internet, a chaos driver and disruptor, opaque in its operation and ever-evolving. As are most social media platforms. Shutting them off is no longer an option. When Fisher suggests this as the answer, his book is disappoints. With so much research, this talented journalist could, and should have, offered a reasoned and workable solution. In the end, Fisher has fallen prey to many of the ills he attributes to social media. He’s created a divisive book, one that screams through his own echo chamber of outraged opinion.
The Chaos Machine, The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World by Max Fisher, Little Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, $37 – 389 pages