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Max Fisher’s Chaos Machine review – how social media has rewired our world | Society books

I joined Twitter in the seemingly happy days of 2009, pre-Brexit, Sandy Hook denial, Covid-19 conspiracy and livestreaming of police brutality. In those days, it felt like a playground: you had fun with like-minded people, made charming acquaintances and laughed at the antics of the resident show-offs. Maybe for someone, somewhere, that version of social media still exists. But probably not. Anyone who has smugly ignored the offline’s advice to “never tweet” is aware that a successful afternoon on social media these days is one in which you somehow manage to escape the harassment, racism, misogyny, atrocity videos or a distant family member. radicalized rant on, say, the wokification of Waitrose.

Wading through digital sewage is the initial cost of using these sites. Less obviously, we pay with our attention and creativity, providing the content that expands the fortunes of their founders for free. And yet, social media remains an alluring prospect, especially for the lonely, the disenfranchised, the frustrated, and those who feel excluded from society. It offers a semblance of community, a place to belong, the feel of followers who seem to care about you and, most convincingly,; a place where your views can be validated and reinforced.

In The Chaos Machine, New York Times reporter Max Fisher attempts to trace how these familiar and contradictory forces have evolved since Facebook launched in 2004. Since then, the site has grown from a project of dormitory to assess the attractiveness of women. students at the third most visited website in the world, with the unregulated power to push fringe conspiracy theories into the mainstream, elect governments on the back of misinformation and even, according to human rights experts United Nations man, to play a “determining role” in the genocide in Myanmar.

Fisher was given more access than most. In 2018, he received a stash of documents from a Facebook entrepreneur-turned-whistleblower (named Jacob, in the book) that claimed to expose the social network’s inadequacy of moderation policies. Facebook duly invited Fisher to its offices to attend high-level meetings. This level of insight, he writes, left him to alternate “between sympathy and skepticism about Facebook’s political overlords.”

Inevitably, the company – and others like it – argue that patterns of radicalization and abuse predate social media. The technology, they argue, has simply reduced the “friction” in communication, allowing messages to spread more widely. Obviously, a propensity to make snap judgments based on incomplete data and to join like-minded crowds when shocked with outrage are general human failings. But that’s something else. Fisher explains how social media algorithms and design “deliberately shape our experiences”, exerting “such a powerful pull on our psychology and identity that it changes the way we think, behave and interact with each other”. .

He quotes Facebook’s own researchers saying that “our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to division”, leveraging this flaw to “catch users’ attention and increase time spent on the platform”. Twitter and Facebook are designed to “turn identity into a matter of totalizing and existential conflict” – an idea familiar to anyone who browsed their feeds in the months leading up to the Brexit referendum.

In a sense, it is a contemporary account of the myth of Narcissus. Social media provides the mirror in which we see our ideas and preferences reflected algorithmically. As these beliefs are reinforced, we fall more and more in love with this reflection until a previously insignificant thought or bias becomes a defining part of who we are. At the same time, we are not built for the omniscience that social media offers us, making us part of every tragedy and triumph across the world in real time. Fisher compares the platforms to cigarette makers in the 1960s, saying he doesn’t understand why people might worry about the impact of their products. At some point, we will look back on those days in bewilderment.

The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World is published by Quercus. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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