Social media exploits users’ vulnerability to create algorithms, says author

Social media companies have deliberately manipulated their users’ desires and fears to drive their engagement metrics, which has been addictive, according to one author.

In his new book, “The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World,” New York Times journalist Max Fisher explores how leading social media and tech companies have managed to earn so many power to the detriment of their users.

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He spoke with ‘ABC News Prime’ about the dilemmas he explores in his book, conversations with industry insiders about the products they helped create and whether or not he would let his child use the media. social.

PRIME: Congratulations, Max, and thank you so much for joining us.

FISHER: Thanks for inviting me.

PRIME: So you talk about how social media platforms have really spent a lot of time making sure we stay wired and connected in an effort to make sure they keep making a lot of money. Explain the algorithm basically behind this.

FISHER: So when you open up a social media platform, what you think you see are messages and thoughts and feelings from people in your community, from your friends, and you think that when you interact with them , when you post something and get a response, what you see are comments from your community and what they like and dislike. And it is not.

What you actually see, what you actually experience, are emotions, feelings and interactions that have been predetermined and pre-selected, often personalized just for you, by these incredibly sophisticated artificial intelligence systems that run the platforms. who determined the specific types of emotions, interactions, and feeling sequence that will not only inspire you to spend more time browsing and scrolling through social platforms, but also engage and elicit specific reactions from your go. Because we are talking about billions of people, the overwhelming majority of Americans, for example, this has profound consequences for the functioning of our society and for our politics.

PHOTO: A man at his desk in an office. (STOCK IMAGE/Getty Images)

PRIME: You use the word consequences repeatedly. I’m really curious what you see as the real consequences of social media.

FISHER: There’s this experiment that I write about in the book where these researchers took two very large groups of people for four weeks, and half of them said ‘just live your life as usual’, and half of them said, “deactivate your Facebook account, take it off your phone.” And the consequences were staggering. One thing they found was that people who turned off Facebook reported higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction, equivalent to about a third of the effect of going to therapy…that’s is certainly much cheaper than going to therapy.

It’s also a suggestion that people didn’t use social media because it makes them happy, in fact they used it because they were addicted to it and had a hard time turning it off and needed that experience to force them to turn them off. And another change they found was that people who turned it off became significantly less polarized. [in] the way they saw the news, [in] how they viewed other people in their community.

PRIME: Do you have a social media account?

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FISHER: You know that’s what’s hard about social media. It’s so pervasive in our world, in the way we consume information, in the way we interact with the people in our lives, our family and our friends, that you have to somehow participate in it. You probably have to have a smartphone, you probably have to be on social media to some degree. But the first thing I think you can do is understand what it does to you, understand its effects, understand how it distorts what it shows you, and how people in your community seem to act.

It’s designed to be engaging, but the kinds of interactions that are engaging, that really activate certain chemicals in your brain and make you want to spend more time on them, are: fear, moral outrage is by far the most engaging feeling, and also any feeling of hostility towards people who are not part of your social group.

PRIME: I just want to take a look at the subtitle because you say “The inside story of how social media has rewired our minds and our world.” Is it correct? Has social media really rewired our brains?

FISHER: They did indeed find that the actual chemistry of your brain is altered as a result of using social media. There are many things in our lives that alter our brain chemistry, and they are called drugs. And it could be caffeine, it could be alcohol, it could be recreational drugs, it could be cigarettes. Social networks work much the same way. The reason it’s designed like that and it’s explicitly designed like that, the people who designed the platforms knowingly used slot machines, dopamine delivery, these addictive, physically addictive features to bring people to spend more time on it is that it also changes your behavior and changes your thinking in all sorts of ways that weren’t intentional on the part of the platforms but are certainly consequential.

PRIME: You also talk about the 2020 election, the January 6 insurrection, the fact that there was so much misinformation and social media companies did very little to try to mitigate it. Do you feel like the genie is out of the bottle at this point, or is he able to control misinformation?

PHOTO: African American man using cell phone at office window (STOCK IMAGE/Getty Images)

PHOTO: African American man using cell phone at office window (STOCK IMAGE/Getty Images)

FISHER: So, that’s funny. There are a lot of people who work at the big social media companies whose job it is to reduce misinformation, to reduce extremism on the platforms, to reduce recruitment to far-right extremist terrorist groups, but they are running a battle lost and, in many ways, unwinnable. Not because there’s anything about social media that means misinformation and hate will always be around, but because these platforms are deliberately designed to ramp up engagement in the most ruthless way possible for these companies.

So it’s out of the bottle in the sense that you can’t clean it as long as the companies do, but it’s also, at least in theory, relatively easy to fix because all the companies have to do is disable those commits – maximize functionality, and a lot of that problem goes away. But they’re not going to do that.

BONUS: Based on the people you interviewed who are both still inside the system and gone, do you feel you can turn the tide and use social media as a force for the good ?

FISHER: So yeah, a lot of these people that I’ve talked to, some of them are Silicon Valley dissidents or whistleblowers, some of the researchers that were outside of Silicon Valley, a lot of between them are still true believers in the theoretical potential of a more neutral social media that doesn’t have these engagement maximizing features is something that can be and sometimes really is a really dramatic and major force for good in the world. But the problem is that these engagement maximizing features just overpower this good and create a lot of harm in the world.

BONUS: Quick, quick last question. Would you let one of your kids have social media?

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FISHER: Oh, my God. No, I wouldn’t let myself have social media if I could get away with it. The thing is, it’s not just that there’s a lot of harmful stuff going on in social media, but young children and teens in particular have a very exaggerated social need and that means they spend a lot more time on social media. They are some of the best customers of these platforms, in fact. And that means the effects, the things that affect you and me, affect them much more drastically.

PRIME: Max Fisher, we thank you very much. And for our viewers, you can purchase “The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World” wherever the books are sold.

Social media exploits users’ vulnerability to create algorithms, says author originally appeared on

Sharon D. Cole