I joined Twitter in the seemingly happy days of 2009, before Brexit, the Sandy Hook denial, the Covid-19 conspiracy, and the police brutality live stream. At the time, it looked like a schoolyard: you joked with like-minded people, made fascinating acquaintances, and laughed at the antics of resident exhibitionists. Perhaps, for someone, somewhere, that version of social media still exists. But probably not. Anyone who has ignored the offline smug advice to “never tweet” is aware that a successful afternoon on social media these days is one where you can somehow evade harassment, racism, misogyny, atrocity videos. or the radicalized outburst, let’s say, on Waitrose’s wokification.
Wading through digital wastewater is the initial cost of using these sites. Less obviously, we pay with our attention and creativity, providing free content that expands the fortunes of their founders. Yet social media remains an attractive prospect, especially for the lonely, the deprived of civil rights, the frustrated and those who feel alienated from society. It offers a semblance of community, a place to belong, the impression of followers who seem to care about you and, more convincingly,; a place where your views can be validated and strengthened.
In The Chaos Machine, New York Times reporter Max Fisher attempts to trace the development of these familiar and contradictory forces since Facebook’s launch in 2004. Since then, the site has gone from a dorm project to gauge attractiveness. of women students at the world’s third most visited website, with the unregulated power to bring fringe conspiracy theories to the mainstream, elect governments on the basis of disinformation, and even, according to UN human rights experts, play a “determining role” in the genocide in Myanmar.
Fisher enjoyed greater access than most of the others. In 2018, she received a stash of documents from a Facebook contractor turned whistleblower (named Jacob, in the book) who purported to reveal the inadequacy of the social network’s 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 for the political leaders of Facebook”.
Inevitably, the company – and others like it – claims that radicalization and abuse patterns predate social media. Technology, they argue, has simply reduced the “friction” in communication, allowing messages to propagate more widely. Clearly a propensity to make hasty judgments based on incomplete data and to join like-minded mobs when caught in indignation are general human flaws. But this is 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 relate to each other. other”.
He cites the same Facebook researchers who claim that “our algorithms exploit the attraction of the human brain for division”, exploiting that flaw to “gain user attention and increase time on the platform”. Twitter and Facebook are designed to “overload identity in a matter of all-encompassing and existential conflict,” a familiar idea to anyone who browsed their feeds in the months leading up to the Brexit referendum.
In a sense this is a contemporary reinterpretation of the myth of Narcissus. Social media provides the mirror in which we see our ideas and preferences algorithmically reflected. As these beliefs are strengthened, we fall more and more in love with that reflection until some previously trivial thought or prejudice becomes a defining element of our identity. At the same time, we are not made for the omniscience that social media offers, making us partakers of every tragedy and triumph around the world in real time. Fisher compares the platforms to 1960s cigarette manufacturers, saying he doesn’t understand why people might be concerned about the impact of their products. At some point we think back to these days with amazement.