The chaos machine



August 29, 2022

The book examines the rise of the social media giants and the dangers they have created for our society. Focusing primarily on Facebook, the author walks through the key steps in the progress of the technology, seeing the advent of algorithms as a turning point. By tracking the sites that consumers visit, algorithms allowed for precise targeting for future contact. The best-performing sites gave users a sense of belonging, usually by denigrating “outsiders.” Over time, the result was increasing social and political polarization, with debate and discourse replaced by attacks that could easily spill into the offline world. Fisher is spot-on when he describes how the promotion and manufacture of moral outrage were not glitches in the system but inherent features. Senior leaders at Facebook received countless warnings about potential problem areas; claiming that they would address them, they never did. The company had rules to exclude certain posts, but they were inconsistent, vague, and overly complex. The author capably explains the many complex elements involved, but his liberal perspective is occasionally too evident. The mere mention of Donald Trump often makes him splutter with indignation. He has much to say about right-wing groups but little about those on the left. Nonetheless, the author maintains his focus on the mechanics of social media, he makes numerous important points. He even suggests that social media has become so counterproductive that we should consider shutting down the big firms—he aptly cites the murderous computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—or at least forcing a thorough restructuring process. It is a sensible idea worth discussing, but given the power of big tech, it is unlikely to happen. The book is an often riveting, disturbing examination of the social media labyrinth and the companies that created it. TW


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