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The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World

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From a New York Times investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist, “an essential book for our times” (Ezra Klein), tracking the high-stakes inside story of how Big Tech’s breakneck race to drive engagement—and profits—at all costs fractured the world

We all have a vague sense that social media is bad for our minds, for our children, and for our democracies. But the truth is that its reach and impact run far deeper than we have understood. Building on years of international reporting, Max Fisher tells the gripping and galling inside story of how Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social networks, in their pursuit of unfettered profits, preyed on psychological frailties to create the algorithms that drive everyday users to extreme opinions and, increasingly, extreme actions. As Fisher demonstrates, the companies’ founding tenets, combined with a blinkered focus maximizing engagement, have led to a destabilized world for everyone.

Traversing the planet, Fisher tracks the ubiquity of hate speech and its spillover into violence, ills that first festered in far-off locales to their dark culmination in America during the pandemic, the 2020 election, and the Capitol Insurrection. Through it all, the social-media giants refused to intervene in any meaningful way, claiming to champion free speech when in fact what they most prized were limitless profits. The result, as Fisher shows, is a cultural shift toward a world in which people are polarized not by beliefs based on facts, but by misinformation, outrage, and fear.

His narrative is about more than the villains, however. Fisher also weaves together the stories of the heroic outsiders and Silicon Valley defectors who raised the alarm and revealed what was happening behind the closed doors of Big Tech. Both panoramic and intimate, The Chaos Machine is the definitive account of the meteoric rise and troubled legacy of the tech titans, as well as a rousing and hopeful call to arrest the havoc wreaked on our minds and our world before it’s too late.

400 pages, Hardcover

First published September 6, 2022

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Max Fisher

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 254 reviews
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
743 reviews1,108 followers
February 1, 2023
It's even worse than I thought....

This is an incredibly interesting and eye-opening book on what social media does, and has done, to our brains and our societies.

If you use social media, and I think everyone does, you should read this book.

Unfortunately, I'm not up to writing an in-depth review so instead I'll refer you to my GR friend Maukan's review. It's well worth reading, even if you don't plan to read the book.

I'm glad I don't use social media much, and will be using it even less after learning what I just did.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,631 reviews600 followers
October 12, 2022
I happened upon The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World in the library catalogue and realised I hadn't read a book critiquing social media for a few months. On the one hand, nothing in it was completely new to me and there was limited theoretical grounding - oddly, I didn't see any references to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. On the other hand, I found it an excellent, thorough, and terrifying work of reportage on how social media's business model creates extremism and destabilises societies. It goes through a series of carefully documented examples of facebook and youtube's destructive impacts in roughly chronological order, from gamergate to the January 6th 2021 US attack on the Capitol via genocide in Myanmar and the rise of Bolsonaro in Brazil. Brexit in the UK isn't mentioned, which is fair enough as by global standards it's petty by comparison. Fisher writes in a clear, absorbing, and insightful style. Although there is the occasional journalistic phrase that doesn't seem necessary, of the 'but worse was yet to come' type, overall I found the book extremely readable and convincing. I mean, it didn't really need to convince me of social media's harms, but it significantly increased my understanding of their severity and how they operate.

It's worth expanding a little on the weak theoretical grounding, which is only noticeable in the first hundred or so pages. I've noticed other non-fiction (e.g Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World) making the same jump as Fisher does between prehistory and the present:

When you see a post expressing moral outrage, 250,000 years of evolution kick in. It impels you to join in. It makes you forget your moral senses and defer to the group's. And it makes inflicting harm on the target of the outrage feel necessary - even intensely pleasurable.


Does evolution really kick in? Thousands of years of philosophy and theology explore humanity's ability to actually think about things before reacting to them. I don't think this ahistorical angle based on evolutionary psychology is particularly helpful, as it seems reductive and fatalistic. Not that it particularly undermines Fisher's strong arguments about what social media is doing right now, but it does disregard the relevant historical context of modern capitalist society. After all, people have been living in cities and communicating with more than 150 others for thousands of years. Social media is novel for the speed, distance, and intensity of information and communication that it enables, as the latter part of the paragraph quoted above make clear:

The platforms also remove many of the checks that normally restrain us from taking things too far. From behind a screen, far from our victims, there is no pang of guilt from seeing pain on the face of someone we've harmed. Nor is there shame at realising our anger has visibly crossed into cruelty. In the real world, if you scream expletives at someone for wearing a baseball cap in an expensive restaurant, you'll be shunned yourself, punished for violating norms against excessive displays of anger and for disrupting your fellow restaurant-goers. Online, if others take note of your outburst at all, it will likely be to join in.


Of course, this is not a theory book; it's in-depth reportage and does that really well. Fisher is adept at synthesising key conclusions from chaotic events and limited data jealously guarded by tech companies. He also has great insight into the ethos of Silicon Valley, which meshes neatly with Shoshana Zuboff's analysis of their optimisation ideology and avoidance of oversight:

But as the Valley expanded its reach, this culture of optimisation at all costs took on second-order effects. Uber optimising for the quickest ride-share pickups engineered labour protections out of the global taxi market. Airbnb optimising for short-term rental income made long-term housing scarcer and more expensive. The social networks, by optimising for how many users they could draw in and how long they could keep them there, may have had the greatest impact of all. "It was a great way to build a startup," Chaslot said. "You focus on one metric, and everybody's on board [for] this one metric. And it's really efficient for growth. But it's a disaster for a lot of other things."


I liked this analogy for the experience of news via social media:

Even its most rudimentary form, the very structure of social media encourages polarisation. [...] Facebook groups amplify this effect even further. By putting users in a homogeneous social space, studies find, groups heighten their sensitivity to social cues and conformity. This overpowers their ability to judge false claims and increases their attraction to identity-affirming falsehoods, making them likelier to share misinformation and conspiracies. "When we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it's not like reading the newspaper when sitting alone," the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written. "It's like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium... We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one."


Finally, a sports metaphor that I understand. Fisher recounts the radicalising effect of Facebook and Youtube's algorithms that optimise for engagement (e.g commenting) and time spent using the platform - they push content that provokes outrage, fear, and anxiety:

The social platforms had arrived, however unintentionally, at a recruitment strategy embraced by generations of extremists. The scholar J.M. Berger calls it 'the crisis-solution construct'. When people feel destabilised, they often reach for a strong group identity to regain a sense of control. It can be as broad as nationality or as narrow as a church group. Identities that promise to recontextualise individual hardships into a wider conflict hold special appeal. You're not unhappy because of your struggle to contend with personal circumstances; you're unhappy because of Them and their persecution of Us. It makes those hardships feel comprehensible and, because you're no longer facing them alone, a lot less scary.


The depressing thing about this is that some personal hardships do genuinely involve a wider context of structural deprivation, as we live in a world of extreme wealth inequality due to rapacious capitalism. Big tech companies are making this worse with their growth fixation, while spreading the kind of misinformation that blames historically persecuted groups for various consequences (intended and unintended) of the complex global capitalist system. And even if you're not being bombarded by conspiracy theories, sorting truth from lies on social media is extremely difficult:

The problem, in this experiment [on Facebook misinformation], wasn't ignorance or lack of news literacy. Social media, by bombarding users with fast-moving social stimuli, pushed them to rely on a quick-twitch social intuition over deliberate reason. All people contain the capacity for both, as well as the potential for the former to overwhelm the latter, which is often how misinformation spreads. And platforms compound the effect by framing all news and information within high-stakes contexts.


Despite prior awareness of Facebook's excuses after being a proximate cause of political violence and genocide, this was still shocking to read:

[In 2018] Zuckerberg [...] riffed on the nature of free speech: "I'm Jewish, and there's a set of people who deny the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don't believe that our platform should take that down, because I think there are things different people get wrong. I don't think that they're intentionally getting it wrong."

It was vintage Silicon Valley. If Zuckerberg was willing to sacrifice historical consensus on the attempted extermination of his forebears for the sake of a techno-libertarian free-speech ideal, then so should everybody else. And, like many of the Valley's leaders, he seemed to be living in an alternate universe where platforms are neutral vessels with no role in shaping users' experiences, where the only real-world consequence is that somebody might get offended, and where society would appreciate the wisdom of allowing Holocaust denial to flourish.


I particularly appreciated the end of the book, which explains the huge difficulty of regulating vast and hostile social media companies and the technically straightforward solution to social media's dangerous effects:

When asked what would most effectively reform both the platforms and the companies overseeing them, Haugen had a simple answer: turn off the algorithm. "I think we don't want computers deciding what we focus on," she said. She also suggested that if Congress curtailed liability protections, making the companies legally responsible for the consequences of anything their systems promoted, "they would get rid of engagement-based ranking." Platforms would roll back to the 2000s, when they simply displayed your friend's posts by newest to oldest. No AI to swarm you with attention-maximising content or route you down rabbit holes.

Her response followed a reliable pattern that has emerged in the years I've spent covering social media.


Social media companies won't do this unless forced, as it undermines their entire data-harvesting business model, but it would make the world so much better if they did. In the meantime, I have developed a semi-bearable approach to social media. I don't use facebook, instagram, or tiktok at all. I use twitter with the algorithmic timeline switched off, my account locked, following a maximum of 50 people, and turning off the retweets of anyone who does that a lot. I use tumblr, which doesn't have an algorithmic timeline either, but only follow 23 blogs who mostly post pretty pictures. My goodreads feed is set to reviews only and luckily goodreads is largely neglected by amazon so its recommendation algorithms suck. I don't have apps for any of these installed on my smart phone. And I only ever use youtube for listening to music, so have trained it never to recommend me videos in which people speak. Still, I resent the amount of trivial current events and outrage that appear unavoidable if I want to regularly see pictures of my friends' cats.

The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World was a timely reminder that such petty annoyances are nothing in the face of the chaos and death social media have stoked in the past decade. Tech companies refuse to take responsibility despite the wealth of evidence, so this is not a particularly hopeful book. It still struck me as an important one for understanding the world we live in, to be read with The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (for theoretical background), The People Vs Tech: How the Internet Is Killing Democracy (for impact on politics and institutions), and This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (on the weaponisation of social media by authoritarian states).
Profile Image for Randal White.
773 reviews68 followers
May 18, 2022
I have to say that this book really shocked me. Being someone who likes to think of myself as being well informed, I'm completely surprised at how social media companies have manipulated me. And, for that matter, the world! Never again will I be able to look at Facebook and similar companies as just a way for me to stay in touch with friends. From the manipulation of what you see in order to boost their bottom line to the subversive ploys built into the "Like" button. Good Lord! I have always been a free enterprise, free speech supporter, but this really has to stop. We cannot continue to let these companies manipulate and destroy our world. Unbelievable!
Profile Image for Carla Bayha.
243 reviews8 followers
July 7, 2022
This is a terrifying, well-argued polemic against the power of social media to turn the average apolitical person into a hate spewing warrior or worse, both at home and abroad in places like Myanmar and Brazil, and even Germany. The origin story of Silicon Valley culture is not nerd kids in garages, but a U.S. military scrambling after Pearl Harbor to diversify bombing targets near the Pacific, while investing in war technologies. Tech companies are not just controlled by their boards, but by the need to keep their libertarian leaning top software engineers from jumping ship, a governance by mostly male gamer culture, with few qualms about the consequences of spreading misinformation. And media content is controlled, with little ethical oversight, by a "Hal"-like system of suggestion algorithms that hooks an all ages audience, by pushing content that increases the ratio of conspiracy, lies, hate, and of course advertising revenue, the longer that you watch. YouTube comes in for the worst drubbing, but it's an "arms race for attention" and Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are creating new tribal identity groups and supplying them with genocidal justification.
Profile Image for MM Suarez.
478 reviews42 followers
September 24, 2022
I think this is probably the best book I've read on the subject some of the information did not surprise me since I think a lot of us instinctively know that social media is to a large degree responsible for the current state of affairs in our country and others around the globe, but some of the hard facts provided here made me sick. I have never been on Facebook, Twitter, or any of the many platforms available to "stay in touch with friends and family" but I do just fine the old fashioned way without the hate machine.
"Engagement equals value" that is the name of the game and that is what all of these companies care about damn the consequences.
Profile Image for Laura.
246 reviews2 followers
September 19, 2022
Throughout reading this book, I could not stop thinking about it. After finishing it, I have to say it completely changed the way I understand our current world. I had an inkling about most of what was in this book, but I did not grasp the full scale of any part of it: the greed, the violence, nor the obscene lengths these companies will go to to keep our eyes on their apps.

This book lays out the case against for-profit, Silicon Valley companies being at the helm of all human communication and news/information distribution. I work as a public librarian, and I would go so far as to say every information professional should be required to read this book (I remember back in 2015-2016, scrambling to plan library programs for adults to help them parse out good information from bad. We- or at least definitely I- thought that was the problem at that time: people just needed guidance! Wow was it way deeper, and way more insidious a problem, than I ever imagined back then.) The algorithms that these companies have unleashed, fed, and ceased to understand have done lasting and possibly irreversible damage to not only our democracy but human discourse overall. All in pursuit of monstrous profit. It was sickening to read about.

This book has changed the way I will approach reference work, both in-person and virtual, going forward. It (surprisingly to me) boosted my empathy and understanding for those who have tumbled down a "rabbit hole" or two on Facebook or YouTube. Truly one of the most important and informative books I've read this year.
Profile Image for Maukan.
35 reviews21 followers
November 14, 2022
If you're lucky .. Every now and then you'll read a book that challenges your predispositions with enough damning evidence that you're left thinking "....Fuck I think I got this wrong.". This is that book for me. Out of all of the "Social Media is making us fucking crazy" types of books, this is the best one I have read. What separates this book from the others? It's been over two decades since virtual worlds in the form of online chat rooms have spawned and over a decade since they have followed us into our pockets in the mobile revolution. We all know they damage our attention spans, make us feel depressed, perhaps less attractive, anxious and more insecure. This should not be news to anyone at this point, every time we pull out our phones and stare into our screens, in the back of our minds we know this behavior is not good for us but we still do it anyway. Max Fisher's Chaos Machine captures exactly why this is from a political sense that extrapolates into other areas. Let's get into that and then I will explain what I got wrong in the past.

Instead of shoving a thousand studies about the harmful emotional effects social media has on our psychology into our mouths. The book does something novel, it first talks about the internets underbelly where racism, sexism and violence are advocated for freely and aggressively on these platforms and how they're seeping into mainstream platforms. He then explains how recommendation systems work, using sophisticated AI algorithms such as reinforcement learning and supervised/ un supervised learning. With this technology, social media platforms are able to filter content into your news feed that will get you to click and spend more time on the platform while making your mind feel like your stomach would after eating undercooked chicken. It goes into great depth on how addictive these algorithms are for example I am betting some of you have said or heard someone say "yeah I went through a youtube rabbit hole last night". Social Media systems have something cable providers wish they had decades ago, the ability to keep you engaged by forwarding the most obscene, vulgar, salacious, alternative facts, conspiratorial information you could possibly find on the internet by harvesting your data.

On the internet, the grander the claim, the faster the velocity of speed it travels, the more likely it is to be picked up by an algorithm and then recommended or filtered into your news feed. For instance, on Facebook, let's say you're anti zika virus vaccines, FB would see this (by FB I mean there algorithms) and then recommend a flat earth group chat or vice versa. It might recommend other group chats if you're anti covid vaccines like possibly anti measles or another group chat that alleges the Clintons are running a pedo ring in the basement of a pizza shop (yes this is real, a man would walk into this place with a rifle only to find a stationary closet after reading this story online).

The discussion we have on free speech is wrong, we think these sites ban people because people flock to their content due to their entertaining conspiracies, thats partially true but the reason they gain such a high following is because they're often times recommended to the users because the sites know their content creates high engagement which equals advertising landfills of money. Some of the most outrageous content is not sought after but its being recommended to users who are then radicalized. Here is another example, two young kids around 6-8 post a youtube video of them in bathing suites in a small inflatable pool (if you're like me, you are probably thinking "How the fuck did the parents allow for this to happen. "We're on the same page) the video in a few days gets over 400,000 views... Ask yourself how does a video of two kids playing in a kitty pool in bathing suits get that many views? Well, the youtube algorithm knows that *cough* a specific type of user indulges in kids showing skin. That's right, the AI algorithm doesn't understand "Ohh this is not good, I should not recommend child videos to pedos", it has an activation function that activates to deliver an end result which is higher engagement. The thing is.... youtube is aware of this and they're still doing nothing about it so if they dont care about the safety of little kids.... Do you think they're going to care about radicalizing viewers to sensational content? This is the crux of the argument, some of these pages if not all are recommended not sought after, which means these apps are giving a gigantic platform and boost to sensational content, stuff you could barely even make up yourself.

Theres examples of Brazil, the US, France and many more which shows step by step how people can fall for these claims spread on these websites that increase polarization. One study showed that users who were paid not to use facebook had their levels of anxiousness reduced by a size-able amount and their levels of polarization cut in half.

Where does this leave free speech? This is where I was wrong, it's not that we just need to ban all content thats salacious because another entity will just rise up and replace the void. It's that we can't have a democracy with recommendation systems that filter content like this to users. Ever since somewhere between 2013-2015 there has been such a shift in how exhausting and vitriolic our political discussions have been, right around this time advancements in AI are being incorporated into social media companies that have made them incredibly addictive.

With that being said I don't agree with all of the authors views. Cable news sites have also catered to the highest level of engagement which is salacious content. Their hands are not clean either so asking systems to recommend their content first is also not the answer. Not to mention let's remember that all cable news sites have gotten virtually every war wrong, in fact I cannot remember a time where they were not pro war... Or at least pushed for peace. Legacy media acts like an instigator in the background of a fight that says "You gonna take that? I didn't know you was a bitch" this is the theme for every escalation, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria you name it. Blaming social media companies does not absolve you of your past and continued failures.

Also again the author calling Julian Assange ALT-right makes no sense, the author leaves out the fact that the Trump administration were literally in talks about murdering him, now the Biden administration is prosecuting him for his wiki leaks cables revealing U.S war crimes killing innocent civilians. Both parties seem to want him in prison or dead. No news organizations or journalists are crying for him even though jailing a journalist for exposing true claims is a pillar of what we would consider democracy to be. I say "again" because every book on social media regards Assange as right-wing or alt-right. Without any evidence other than leaking democratic emails. He also leaked war crimes from both sides of the aisle.

A terrifying book to read given January 6th, the amount of conspiracies existing in the past 7 years on social media, theres no foundation of truth and that is a very precarious position for a democracy to be in.

5 Stars
Profile Image for Bob.
1,778 reviews606 followers
November 17, 2022
Summary: A deep dive into how social media has rewired our minds and fueled social divisions.

If the events of the past years have not already done so, this book should give you pause about any of the social media platforms you use regularly. It did so for me.

Max Fisher looks at phenomena as diverse as the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the growth of anti-vaccine movements, and the political discord of our recent elections. He shows how these are not simply the result of zealots posting what is often false information or incendiary statements. Rather, he argues that there is something baked into our social media that turns these into potent movements that in some instances have led to the loss of life and the deception of many.

The issue is engagement. If all the things posted on any platform, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Reddit, were given equal weight, the postings of zealots, social media influencers, and bad actors from other countries would still have minimal effect–getting lost in the mass of material posted every day. What makes it different is that each of these platforms and others, in the pursuit of advertising dollars, where they make their money, promote the material that gets the most engagement through the algorithms that determine what we see when we visit one of these sites. Those algorithms are tailored to our interests and show us more of what we’ve viewed, liked, and clicked on.

But there is more. These platforms use recommendation engines that show you other content that is related to your interests, content that is getting a lot of engagement. And often this is inflammatory, engendering fear or anger. And this can lead people into groups that share that anger, that disengagement with society, and down a rabbit hole, away from family and friends in the real world.

What is chilling is Fisher’s account of the indifference of these platforms, even when their internal research calls attention to the effect of their algorithms. Often, government authorities, seeking to stop the spread of misinformation, find it impossible to even get a response from these platforms–unless they pull the plug on these platforms’ access to their countries. But in many countries, these platforms serve as the primary source of information for their people. Hence, the reluctance to take this step.

I found this a deeply disturbing trend. And in the light of the recent takeover of Twitter and the financial struggles of Meta, the parent company of Facebook, I think the chaos Fisher chronicles could easily increase–unless. Unless we educate ourselves about how these platforms work, how they show us content (or not), and make decisions of how we will engage them without being manipulated by them. But this is a big ask. All I know is that I am asking myself hard questions about how I will engage these platforms going forward–or whether I will continue to do so.

____________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.
Profile Image for Matthew.
146 reviews1 follower
September 21, 2022
Quite possibly one of the scariest books I've ever read, it details the nexus between how social media algorithms, many with zero human oversight, exploit weaknesses of human psychology and pull people down the rabbit hole by serving up posts and groups -- not by their accuracy or ability to enlighten, but rather the groups most likely to increase screen time and engagement. Imagine if a computer at a soda plant, constantly tweaked the recipe for ways to to sell more cola, not giving any consideration to safety or nutrition.

It leads to Facebook fueled massacres like in Myanmar and Sri Lanka and medical misinformation via Dr. YouTube in Brazil where parents refuse feeding tubes to save their children because of a video they saw saying doctors are just exploiting their kids to make more money.

Terrifying.
Profile Image for Ali Edwards.
Author 5 books897 followers
September 25, 2022
Listened to this one after hearing about it on a podcast. Super important + very well laid out history of the rise of social media + the companies behind it all. Sobering. Scary. Vital knowledge.
Profile Image for Tammy.
128 reviews3 followers
December 30, 2022
So biased. I read the intro, part of the first chapter, skimmed the rest, and could not finish it. It was way too one-sided. This is not an unbiased or even fair portrayal of the inner workings of Facebook and other social media platforms. The author almost seems to be torn between proving that social media is detrimental or that it is the protector of our democracy. Fisher seems to be saying that Facebook and social media is evil and bad, but the creators and employees of FB, etc, are completely good people with only the best intentions. Fisher’s writing is all over the place, filled with speculation, hearsay and personal opinion. Which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for in a book about social media and it’s effects on the human race. But I was expecting solid evidence, scientific research and thoughtful conclusions. It was clear I wasn’t going to get that out of this book.
Profile Image for Coleman.
262 reviews14 followers
January 31, 2023
Finally. A book on the ills of social media that doesn’t blame the individual using it for its addictiveness or polarization. The Chaos Machine is the first book of its kind to actually take a systemic look at social media and have a systemic critique. Social media doesn’t just happen to be addictive and polarizing. It was designed that way by founders and their venture capitalist backers to create markets, control those markets, and make lots and lots of money. If it happens to also rip through the fabric that holds societies together, so be it.

There is too much in this book for me to adequately cover in one review, but Max Fisher presents damning evidence that social media companies know their products are addictive and harmful, and won’t do anything about it. In fact, they are likelier to make their products more addictive and more harmful if it means more market share and more money.

At some point, these companies realized that attention is the main currency that drives internet activity. If you can get people’s attention, and keep that attention on your site, you can sell more ads and command cultural conversations at large. So they have created platforms and algorithms designed to sap as much of your free time as possible and keep you coming back for the dopamine hit they can provide. We check our phones over 150 times a day thanks in large part to social media (27). YouTube purposefully changed its algorithm so that searches for videos do not return the best results, but the results that will create the most engagement (106). Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, all of them will do whatever it takes to keep you coming back. And their algorithms figured out that polarizing content that stirs your emotions is the most attention-grabbing (and attention-keeping) content of all.

That’s why Youtube funnels men looking for self-help to Jordan Peterson (210) and used to recommend Alex Jones’ InfoWars more than any other politics or news channel (216). It’s why anti-vax and q-anon groups run rampant on facebook, and why the January 6th riot was able to organize seemingly out of thin air (321). Social media creates rabbit holes of conspiracy and doom because those rabbit holes hook people to the apps. In fact, Facebook can take credible blame for genocide in Myanmar because of its push to take over the country’s market, disinterest in monitoring and taking down harmful content (Facebook would not even hire any moderators who could speak Burmese, the main language in Myanmar), and its algorithm’s mandate to push the most attention-grabbing posts to the top. Anti-Muslim hate spread like wildfire in the majority-Buddhist nation, and caused real life riots and attacks that killed Muslim people. Facebook ignored all of this until the Myanmar government shut the website down on their national internet. It was then that Facebook checked in, not to apologize for all the problems they caused, but to ask why their engagement in Myanmar had suddenly dipped.

I realize the irony of posting all this to another social media website (Goodreads), but it's the best way to grab some attention lol. I don’t even have time to talk about Silicon Valley is run by libertarian psychopaths who think diversity is bad (51), or how part of the reason facebook doesn’t curtail hate speech is because too many conservatives and their political pages use hate speech, and were getting banned as a result (142), or how Mark Zuckerberg claimed facebook would help prevent pandemics (LOL) (171). There’s even a good section talking about how social media’s one potential benefit, organizing for social justice, is a nonstarter because social media can draw big crowds to protests which usually dissipate and have no durability to create real change (216). This is an absolute must-read, and the most convincing entry in the “Why you should quit social media” subgenre.

TL;DR - Once again, we can blame capitalism.
Profile Image for Andrew Carr.
471 reviews86 followers
November 8, 2022
I read so I can understand how the world actually works. For a variety of reasons, many non-fiction books cannot help you towards that goal. This one does.

Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Reddit etc) is one of the most significant contemporary dynamics. It is changing our economy, our politics, our entertainment and culture, our way of spending time, and even the way humans interact with each other. Yet it is not very well understood.

Fisher sets out to explain a particular part of social media: why is it associated with such polarization, rise of extremist views, mob-like behaviour (to harass or cancel transgressors) and seemingly working to both strengthen some authoritarian systems while critically undermining democratic ones. Which then makes trying to meaningfully address it a particularly challenging question.

Social media’s ills in some way seem over-determined. From the macro (and therefore unhelpfully broad) categories of Race, Capitalism, Free Speech, to the micro (Zuckaberg’s poor governance, Trump’s particular exploitation etc). What is valuable about The Chaos Machine is that Fisher helps narrow down the focus towards an issue which seems at the crux of the swirling issues: Algorithmic amplification.

Part of why Social Media exploded in popularity was that this was the deliberate intention of social media designers. They want us as engaged with their products as long as possible. And certain kinds of content stimulate stronger and longer engagement. Receiving virtual social kudos (likes, hearts) provides a dopamine hit. Moral-emotional language (Hate, Adore, Frustrated) captures our attention and encourages us to engage. In the search for continuous eyeballs, these sites have developed ways of pushing content that generates strong reactions to the top of our feeds (which have endless cycles so we never run out of new things to respond to).

As such, while 1000 people can be posting happily away about their happy lives, 10 people may be posting cynical, manipulative, outrage-generating content. And because it generates a strong response, those 1000 people will at some point have this content served up to them. 300 may click through for curiosity, 100 may click on a further recommendation, 50 may fall down a youtube rabbit hole. 10 more may end up posters themselves of new outrage generating content. The amount of disturbing content has now just doubled. And it will keep doubling because to the machine, this was a successful pattern of generating engagement (and hence ad revenue for the sites).

The problem, as a French computer scientist who worked at Youtube identifies midway through the book, is thus not the fact those original 10 people had free speech. It was the deliberate amplification of the worst but most engagement-driving, forms of speech.

At times, the sites have deliberately recognised this. In one highly disturbing incident in 2018, youtube’s algorithm discovered that it could cut together thousands of videos of young kids in the pool or in partial clothing. And doing so generated a lot of eyeballs. So it did it again and again. In that case, Youtube eventually acted. But it and other social media companies haven’t done so in cases where people in the US, Germany, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Brazil or dozens of other places around the world. And people have been killed because of their refusal.

You can understand the companies reluctance. They didn't make the conspiracy theories, they know nothing about why the Rohingya people are seen as illegitimate in Myanmar. Turn off the systems always delivering us hot takes and engaging content and we might go and do something else with our time, hurting their profits. But the rise of the far-right in particular, the explosion of conspiracy theories, the re-emergence of political violence and destabilisation in democracies around the world is necessarily (if not sufficiently) tied to these services.

Given the significance of this book’s subject, it reflects what I term a ‘Citizenship book’. Books I think we should be providing on mass to citizens to read and help them engage with the world. To help them understand what makes their world tick. They can choose to respond to it however they wish, but we’d all be far better off if there was a richer foundation on which to do so.

But in a world where citizenship books were a real thing, we’d probably never have the problem with the algorithms that we do today. Our grand parents generation would occasionally go and spend an evening listening to local politicians giving a talk. Tonight our nightly news may offer a 6 second sound bite to the leader of the country. After having shown 15 minutes of stories of crime and celebrities.

Even if we had more clearly defined channels for our content we’d all be in a better situation. Fisher rightly points the finger at Youtube as one of the most disturbing social media sites, directly linked with many (most?) cases of radicalisation. But while I use the site everyday, I’ve almost never seen that material. Why? Because I only use it for my hobbies (cooking, games) and music. I don’t seek news from YouTube. But some of us do. And a mainstream news report reposted on Youtube, as the algorithm has clearly recognised, won’t get a fraction of the attention and emotive engagement that a cynical conspiracy clip will get. The algorithm amplification is the problem, but the problem only exists because of human frailties.

In some ways this is a depressing book. The thing in our pocket which distracts us in the stalled grocery line, is the same thing giving rise to mob violence in our streets, undermining our democracy, and directly killing people around the world. That said, reading The Chaos Machine in November 2022 I do feel a small sense of optimism for three reasons.

First, perhaps through books like this, and the growing recognition within Silicon Valley about their leviathan, we’re coming to better understand the problem. Second, the kinds of mass social movements whose amplification can really have vast scales may be struggling. We’re not going away from social media anytime soon, but Facebook is spiralling and Twitter seems about to break down. To be sure the problem isn’t going away, but the diffusion of sites, the diffusion of networks will create more natural fire breaks.

Finally, Time may help cure some wounds. Parts of the baby boomers generation have been utterly broken by Facebook. And journalists and politicians are unlikely to anoint one single network again in the way they legitimised Twitter in the 2010s. Maybe just maybe the digital natives coming up now will have a slightly better grasp of how to manage such systems. Now, to post this to Goodreas and Twitter. If you enjoyed this review, please like, share and subscribe!
Profile Image for Cody Zedaker.
43 reviews
January 10, 2023
Christmas gift from Brandon <3

This had a lot of really interesting stories regarding the macro-societal effects of social media, particularly happening at a political level. However, I think what I really wanted to read was a mix of both how it affects a society (ie QAnon conspiracies) coupled with how it affects an individual (ie increased anxiety due to screen time). Part of my review is probably based on bad expectations on my end.

But, I do think sometimes conclusions are made on political stances & biases too quickly in the book. Would've liked to see a slightly more politically neutral & empathetic POV when writing. Oh well.

Social media sucks (except GoodReads)
Profile Image for M.
239 reviews2 followers
September 22, 2022
This was an incredible book. Easily one of the best and most informative books I’ve read in 2022. I thought I knew a lot about Big Tech and misinformation and the never ending algorithms that are destroying our societies and democracy, but I learned *so* much with this book. I didn’t fully grasp how these platforms are fundamentally designed to incite violence and polarization, and amplify misinformation, and the lengths rich CEOs will go to keep incentivizing watch time and engagement no matter how much violence is caused, until I read this book. It is beyond evil. I truly think everyone should read this book. I’m horrified, angry, fascinated, moved. Facebook and YouTube have so much blood on their hands, but as Fisher says: they continue to do nothing. This is a book I will be thinking about for a very long time.

I loved how Fisher discussed so many countries, from Myanmar to Sri Lanka to Germany to Brazil and of course America to show how these platforms, these algorithms, incited not just violence but genocide in some cases, around the world. It’s insane. I didn’t know much about the role of social media in Myanmar and Sri Lanka’s horrendous violence, and I appreciated how global this book was and how Fisher’s own experience reporting in those countries shaped his research. The case studies he cited were fascinating. You didn’t have to be an insider to understand this remarkable work of journalism. It was very accessible, explanatory, well argued and smart. On a writer note: Fisher is great at making transitions between sections to make you want to keep reading and he puts human anecdotes— stories about people— as the thread moving this deeply important book forward.
Profile Image for Ula Tardigrade.
172 reviews6 followers
September 4, 2022
Very timely and accessible description of the current state of social media and their evil influence on all of us, as well as a guide through its short but complicated history.
The author, an investigative reporter from the New York Times, clearly knows his craft, so he gives us a fast paced journalistic account, with many colorful characters and surprising plot twists.

If you’re following this topic closely you will be familiar with most of the phenomena and events described here, but nonetheless you will find an engaging and interesting story. And if you’ve just recently begun to wonder what is going on and want to be up-to-date as soon as possible, this book will be a perfect choice.

Thanks to the publisher, Little, Brown and Company, and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.
Profile Image for Nick.
52 reviews
September 30, 2022
It was not fun reading this book, but I think it's one of the most important I've read for a long time.

Chapter by chapter, Fisher outlines recent history in terms of how choices made by a select few in Silicon Valley has had monumental social ramifications, from Pizzagate to the storming of the Capitol. There is some dark stuff here - the all too easy path to online radicalisation is kind of just the tip of a horrifying iceberg (sexism, racial violence, genocide, pedophilia, civilian militias etc etc etc...). All of it stems back to an Us vs Them attitude that has underpinned so much of the philosophy of online media companies. It's morally bankrupt, and it's doing unimaginable damage with little to know ramifications.

(He says all this while writing a review on a social media platform - not you, Goodreads! Not you!)

The sad thing is we all now know someone who has undergone this process. The 'rabbit hole'

While enough of us go 'that's not me', we really don't know the full extent of how social media has impacted us individually other than a vague feeling of 'something is not right' - not even the engineers know for sure the impactions of what they have wrought , because they've handed responsibility for their platform over to the algorithm. We can see the chaos seeded by this choice, but the most depressing thing is that it will not change while there is still endless money to be made.

Fisher writes about complicated social history (that is still very much unfolding) with clarity and nuance. While I was more or less aware of much of the (interviews with ex-employees, social media experts, but most importantly, Fisher writes about individual people and how this has all impacted their lives, from

Trump is just a symptom, allowed to manipulate a system that has shown time and time again to tear people apart rather than bring us together

In summation: dystopia is a lot more fun when its fictional.

Profile Image for Rod.
33 reviews
October 30, 2022
Really digs into the fact that underlying algorithms promote the negative impact social media has on news and an individuals understanding of current events… quite eye opening; however books content is extreme far left bias and promotes the fact that anything or anyone that remotely questions or suggests another perspective from this position is simply wrong.

Meh… critical thinking today is a super power. There is misinformation and disinformation on both sides of the coin. This book is one side of the coin…
43 reviews2 followers
January 28, 2023
There is a lot to be said about the impact of social media on our lives. It connects communities and people who might not otherwise have met and learned from each other. We can remain connected with far-flung family and friends. You can watch videos of cute animals. That's the good news.

The darker news is that underneath all of this lovely content and connecting lies a much more capitalist and stark reality: automated algorithms designed to do one thing and one thing only: keep you on a social media network for as long as possible. To do this, the algorithm figures out what you like, and serves you that kind of content. So, for instance, I watch videos about general aviation, so YouTube will serve up videos of pilots taking amazing scenic shots from the air, or flying into weird places, or managing less-than-ideal flight conditions.

But, over time, YouTube's algorithm will, to keep me watching, start showing me recommendations for more extreme videos. You think that landing was cool? Try watching this Airbus bounce down a runway in Germany. Or (later), here's grainy footage from a actual crash.

The recommendations are not always as related as you might think. There's a bush pilot who's channel I used to watch, because landing a plane on the side of a mountain in Papua New Guinea is very interesting to me. But, since he's a missionary bush pilot, YT's algorithm started trying to serve me missionary-related videos, which I am decidedly not interested in.

This kind of thing happens all the time on many social media platforms, and The Chaos Machine outlines many examples of how this all works... and how it can very quickly lead to terrible consequences. Fisher does a thorough and mostly dispassionate examination of the rise of social media and its change from online gathering places to advertising- and attention-seeking behemoths that have directly and indirectly ruined or even ended countless lives.

This is not a cheerful book, but it's a very important one that you should read. Human beings are social creatures, after all, and it's important to know there are machines out there who continue to exploit that every single day.
Profile Image for Jacob Stelling.
337 reviews2 followers
January 1, 2023
An absolutely brilliant - if terrifying - investigation into the role social media plays in shaping our reality of the world around us, and how this often does not reflect the real world. Fisher combines outstanding investigative journalism with the latest research on psychological hacking to present a worrying picture of how the social media giants hijacked our evolutionary instincts to divide us, all in a dogmatic pursuit of increasing growth.

Using worrying case studies like YouTube's role in promoting the alt-right, and Facebook's role promoting genocide in Myanmar, Fisher highlights how the executives at these companies turned a blind eye to the glaring issues to protect their business models until it was too late to stop the tide.

Can't recommend this book enough for anyone wanting to understand social media's causal role in many of our societies' most pressing issues.
Profile Image for Marisa Norton.
67 reviews
September 28, 2022
"People who deleted Facebook became happier, more satisfied with their life, and less anxious. The emotional change was equivalent to 25 to 40 percent of the effect of going to therapy - a stunning drop for a four-week break."

"But platforms often privilege radicalizing connections for a reason: it works. Extremists like the crisis-solution sequence because it primes people to action. Algorithms like it because it engages people's attention and passion, turning web browsing into a matter of identity, community, even fanaticism - and therefore more watch time."

"The algorithm doesn't have any kind of moral compass to it."

A nonfiction horror book if I've ever read one. But an important story to tell. It was a bit dense and I left wishing there were more individual takeaways/action items, but ultimately his conclusion is that the companies are entirely to blame and entirely responsible for fixing the problem.
Profile Image for Nader Rizkalla.
82 reviews9 followers
October 7, 2022
It is a common understanding that social media has spoiled our lives: psychological, social and political. It is also well known that social media giants are exploiting the worst in humans-fear, anger, envy, vanity- for greedy profits. Many good books (this one is not one of them) have covered the issue objectively and in good faith.

The author of this book has very much conveniently avoided the mention of the two major predators of social media; CCP and Political Islam. Well, Max knows the price and it is not the agenda!

This book is biased and not objective, thus worthless. Max Fisher is not a maverick, he is just a coward.
Profile Image for Tommy Kazamawa.
6 reviews18 followers
November 11, 2022
Not the most shocking in its analysis of how social media drives polarization and conflict, but connects really well the research on and examples of extreme polarization to the dynamics of social media platforms’ business models, the culture of Silicon Valley and (more specifically) the libertarian misogyny at the heart of the Valley’s venture capital networks.
33 reviews
December 8, 2022
Horrifying. If you want a deeper understanding of how we got to where we are as a society - deeply intolerant, unemphatic and divided; I urge you to read this book.
Mr. Fisher clearly explains how the social media algorithms drive divisive and extreme content to users. I couldn't help thinking, this is the perfect formula to create a mass shooter. And with no negative financial consequences to big tech, it won't change anytime soon. Shame on all of us.
Profile Image for Amelia Durham.
48 reviews11 followers
September 21, 2022
Everyone, and I mean everyone should read this book.

We can all see how social media has permeated our lives and affected us in positive ways. But there is a dark side and one that the author details with chilling gravity.

Social media has real world consequences and can change your brain chemistry depending on how you Interact with it. Some being more vulnerable than others, it can affect behavior and not always in a good way. He really details how these platforms are being used to incite mobs, destroy careers and skew politics using misinformation and outright fabrications.

I was expecting a lot but this was even more than I expected and will definitely be impacting the time I spend on platforms. Radicalization of casuals information seeking is definitely something to be wary of. Looking back I do see this happening in myself and many friends. No thanks.
Profile Image for Ashley.
95 reviews
September 20, 2022
I've read other books on the topic of algorithms and social media and I was still blown away by The Chaos Machine. The global effects really hit home in this book. So much important information was presented and the research involved was fantastic. It was very engaging but also incredibly depressing. Looking at the current trajectories of the big social media companies change doesn't appear to be coming anytime soon.
24 reviews1 follower
January 7, 2023
Highly recommend. Persuasive case that YouTube and Facebook are willfully driving people toward further and further extremes by maximizing engagement. My two primary critiques are 1) that there seem to be current countertrends toward moderation that the author didn’t engage with but I would’ve enjoyed discussion of, and 2) it was verbose at times and could’ve been 100 pages shorter. But the case was strong overall and it’s worth reading.
Profile Image for Scott Lupo.
383 reviews5 followers
October 17, 2022
Full disclosure: I gave up Facebook in April 2021. It was soon after I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix. I can honestly say that I really feel the difference in an extremely positive manner. In some ways, I feel like this kind of outsider now that is observing society like an anthropologist and wondering why I even partook in the craziness. So from my own personal experience, as anecdotal as it may be, social media is not good for the human psyche. And that seems to be the majority of this book. It is mostly anecdotal evidence, basically an historical account, of social media's negative influences via stories. Tragic and awful stories. Stories of whole countries being held hostage by global behemoths hell bent on techno-capitalist ideology than saving needlessly wasted human lives. This is good investigative journalism that attempts to connect the dots in what is really still a nascent industry. Social media is still in its baby stages as a major influencer in society. This book starts with Gamergate which happened in 2014/15. While there is evidence currently being collected through major studies of the effect of social media on the human brain, the events recounted in this book certainly makes a compelling case against social media. The main culprit is algorithms. At this point, a human could no longer decipher the iterations of social media's algorithms. And since an algorithm is only interested in one thing, revenue building, it ends up causing deleterious effects to humans by basically putting them in echo chambers and solidarity groups. It warps a human's sense of reality, sometimes to the point of creating violence. In essence, we are all part of gigantic social experiment without understanding the consequences. In many ways, that is totally American.
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