A New Book Points the Finger at Social Media

Technology Policy Brief #71 | By: Steve Piazza | October 23, 2022

Header photo taken from: Max Fisher via Twitter




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The real threat from A.I. isn’t just their superintelligence but rather how mindless A.I. are—and how delusional we tend to be about their so-called intelligence interacting with human users of technology and applications of such in social media.

Photo taken from: Possessed Photography / Unsplash

One has to wonder how many people would sign on to become addicted to a new technology promising rabbit holes of misinformation and manipulation, alienation from family and friends, and the inability for the government to protect them from it.

Max Fisher argues in his new book, The Chaos Machine, that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube knew that number would be miniscule. So they engineered clandestine artificial intelligence (AI) programs that would make decisions for users worldwide in order to keep them interminably engaged. Millions and millions never stood a chance to think for themselves and avoid damage to their emotional and mental health, let alone the political landscape, and perhaps even the future of democracy.

Fisher, a writer for the New York Times who, along with a team of reporters, nearly won a Pulitzer prize in 2019 reporting on the effects of social media, continues here with extremely thorough reporting.

Though most of the examples Fisher pulls from have been highly publicized and may seem all too familiar, the book’s strength comes from Fisher’s sound, journalistic abilities seeking out and securing primary sources. 

He scours the world like a war correspondent, putting himself in touch with people on the front lines of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar or the Zika outbreak in Brazil. At times we find him in executive meeting rooms at Facebook, while at others he’s seamlessly citing scholars and industry professionals as needed. He even spends time with leading psychologists where he speaks with them about user syndromes like status threat, deindividuation, and others. Without question, this is extremely solid reporting.

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Social media preys on vulnerability of users to create algorithms.

Max Fisher: when you open up a social media platform, what you think you’re seeing are posts, thoughts and sentiment from people in your community, from your friends, and you think when you interact with them, when you post something and get a response, what you’re seeing is the feedback from your community and what they like and don’t like. And that is not the case.

Photo taken from: ABC

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At the center of it all is the indictment of a Silicon Valley built upon the drive to disrupt and break the status quo without concern for reprimand. This revolutionary attitude towards authority dates back to the 1990’s, when the industry informed world governments they were governing themselves and stood behind a manifesto that free speech of any kind, was thereafter non negotiable.

This explains why hate speech and conspiracy theories have been allowed to proliferate. 

Despite occasional outcry and non-aggressive government attempts to intervene, nothing prevented the companies from developing algorithms that increased user engagement while maximizing profits. 

As the potential for subscribers and ad revenues became unlimited, so was the power for the companies to ignore criticism and deny responsibility for any harm done.  Fisher writes that the “social media overlords” defended themselves by believing “…any bad behavior was users’ fault, no matter how crucial a role the platform played in enabling, encouraging, and profiting from those transgressions.”

Fisher often reminds us that controversy sells, citing instances where Facebook deliberately ignored calls for help from countries with snowballing subscriber lists that misinformation from social media posts had gotten out of control resulting in violence and death. 

Sri Lankan Government Minister, Sudarshana Gunawardana said in 2018 after hate riots driven by viral rumors, “We’re a society, we’re not just a market.”

It’s pretty clear who the villains are here. Yet, it’s one thing to spotlight the negligence of corporations and their stockholders, the incriminating statements made by Mark Zuckerberg and other CEOs and administrators, and the lack of urgency and fortitude by the government; it’s another to get things to change.

And, recalling the murderous actions by the computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which prioritizes mission over humans, Fisher also is explicit who the victims are and that something, whatever that might be, must be done to protect them the moment a threat is evident.

This book may not have the impact of forcing a CEO to resign or topple a corporation, but at least it can add to any momentum towards a tipping point of systemic change.

We just have to hope that the AI does not get their first.

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