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Social media can inflame your emotions — and it's a byproduct of its design

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you feel like checking social media leaves you feeling angrier and more outraged, that's not your imagination. Max Fisher has covered the impact of social media around the world for The New York Times, from genocide in Myanmar to COVID misinformation in the U.S. And in his new book, "The Chaos Machine," he describes how the polarizing effect of social media is speeding up.

MAX FISHER: (Reading) Remember that the number of seconds in your day never changes. The amount of social media content competing for those seconds, however, doubles every year or so, depending on how you measure it. Imagine, for instance, that your network produces 200 posts a day, of which you have time to read about a hundred. Because of the platform's tilt, you will see the most outraged half of your feed. Next year, when 200 doubles to 400, you will see the most outraged quarter, the year after that the most outraged eighth. Over time, your impression of your own community becomes radically more moralizing, aggrandizing and outraged. And so do you. At the same time, less innately engaging forms of content - truth, appeals to the greater good, appeals to tolerance - become more and more outmatched like stars over Times Square.

SHAPIRO: That's Max Fisher reading from "The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story Of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds And Our World." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

FISHER: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with how this actually works. You write that social media polarizes and radicalizes us because of the choices that algorithms make. And choice is an imprecise word there. But basically, whether it's Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, artificial intelligence is deciding what to show us. Why is it that among the whole spectrum of things that the algorithm could show us, the things they choose to show us are the outrageous, polarizing ones?

FISHER: It's because those are the things that are most engaging to us because they speak to a sense of social compulsion, of a group identity that is under threat. Moral outrage specifically is probably the most powerful form of content because what you are experiencing is millions of years of evolution, the very specific environment that we, the human animal, evolved and had to learn to survive in, where you had to survive by finding a place and seeking the approval within this group but also defending against outside groups. And no one in Silicon Valley deliberately decided to surface these, but they developed these systems that were just uncannily powerful at identifying what was going to be the thing that was going to hook us. And this just happened to be it.

SHAPIRO: So you give lots of examples of how this played out. One specific one is about a goal that YouTube set to get a billion hours of watch time per day by 2016. And you write that to reach this goal, YouTube basically brain hacked millions of Americans in the middle of the most contentious election in modern history. Spoiler - they got their goal. How did they achieve it?

FISHER: So what the systems that govern YouTube and that govern what you see realized is that what would actually serve that goal is by providing you content that would create some sort of a sense that you and your identity were under threat. And so what that might mean is that if you're looking for, let's say, health tips, let's say, information about vaccines, the best thing for YouTube to show you isn't straightforward health information. The best thing for YouTube to show you is something that gives you a sense that you are part of some community - let's say, moms who are concerned about their kids - and that that community is under threat from some outside danger and that that will trigger a sense of alarm that will make you want to come back and spend more and more time watching.

SHAPIRO: So the key question isn't, what's the best information we can give the user? The key question is, what will keep the user's eyeballs glued to our platform?

FISHER: And what's amazing is that if you go and look back at internal conversations within YouTube - and this is something they talked about openly at the time - is that they explicitly said, our goal should not be to surface the best information. Our goal should be to surface content that is emotionally engaging, that will get people to spend more time on the platform. And they were saying this, like you said, right at the start of what would turn out to be arguably the most consequential election in American history.

SHAPIRO: You did some reporting in Sri Lanka, where people used Facebook and WhatsApp, which is owned by the same company, to gin up ethnic violence. And high-ranking Sri Lankan officials begged Facebook to do something before violence broke out. And you write that every single report was ignored. And then after mobs took to the streets, destroying homes and businesses, the government finally reluctantly blocked all access to social media. Will you read what happened next?

FISHER: Yeah, sure. (Reading) Two things happened almost immediately. The violence stopped. Without Facebook or WhatsApp driving them, the mobs simply went home. And Facebook representatives, after months of ignoring government ministers, finally returned their calls but not to ask about the violence. They wanted to know where traffic had zeroed out.

SHAPIRO: I mean, what do you make of that?

FISHER: So the thing about these companies is they do employ a lot of really smart, thoughtful people who are, within bounds, trying their best to limit the harms of these platforms. But these are...

SHAPIRO: You're trying to spin this in the best possible light. It looks really bad.

FISHER: It's - yeah. Well - but the thing is these people do not ultimately have the authority and the power within these companies. The people who have the authority in the power are - just like in any major corporation, are the profit drivers. And those are the people who get that traffic up so they can sell ads against it and continue to make billions and billions of dollars. And that is the thinking that prevails in which Sri Lanka was a really striking case. It's not even that valuable of a market. They don't even make that much money there. And the warnings that Facebook was getting ahead of this violence were so specific and from so many very senior people in government saying, this is going to lead to an outbreak of vicious racial, religious mob violence, which is exactly what happened.

And maybe somebody in the company did care but not enough for any demonstrable changes to happen at the company. But as soon as the traffic dropped out, the company mobilized into action. And I think that this is an instructive story for what - behind all the rhetoric, behind all the high-flying manifestos about how they're bringing us to a new stage of human evolution, what really drives and concerns these companies.

SHAPIRO: In light of all this, how do you explain the millions of people who use social media every day and don't get radicalized or pulled into conspiracy theories or flame wars?

FISHER: I think that's a really important question because for the overwhelming majority of us, the effect is subtle. Spending more time on social media will make you significantly more polarized. It will make you more prone to feeling - internally feeling in your own self outrage and moral outrage. And that is something that I think we do all feel. And it might ring true to those of us who spend time on social media who don't become a crazy conspiracy theorist but will feel that pull on us.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about solutions. You believe that eliminating these companies altogether would create a lot of harm. So what do you think the solution is to these problems? Is there a way to change the model so companies are not so incentivized to feed people outrageous stuff that'll keep them glued to the platform for hours?

FISHER: Whenever I would ask the experts who study this, you know, what do they think the solution should be, it's always some version of turning it off - not turning off the entire platform, not shuttering the website but turning off the algorithm, turning off likes, the little counter at the bottom of the post that shows you how many people liked it or retweeted it. That's something that even Jack Dorsey, the former head of Twitter, floated as an idea because he came to see that as so harmful. But turning off these engagement-maximizing features is something that we have actually experimented with. And a version of social media like that, I think, could potentially bring a lot of the good that they bring, which is real, and mitigate some of the harms.

SHAPIRO: That's Max Fisher. His new book is called "The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story Of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds And Our World." Thank you so much.

FISHER: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And a note that Facebook parent company Meta pays NPR to license NPR content.

(SOUNDBITE OF RX FELLA SONG, "DRUGS AND ROSES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.