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How the polarizing effect of social media is speeding up

The YouTube algorithm has been criticized for pushing content that radicalizes users rather than keeping them informed.
AFP via Getty Images
The YouTube algorithm has been criticized for pushing content that radicalizes users rather than keeping them informed.

For many, checking social media has become a routine of logging on, seeing something that makes them angry or upset, and repeating that cycle ad infinitum.

If that feels true to you, it's not your imagination.

Max Fisher is a journalist who focuses on the impact of social media on global conflicts and our daily lives, and has covered it extensively for The New York Times.

In his new book, The Chaos Machine, Fisher details how the polarizing effect of social media is speeding up. He joined All Things Considered to talk about why tech companies benefit from this outrage, and the danger it could pose to society.

"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 100. 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."

— An excerpt from The Chaos Machine

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On why social media algorithms steer users toward outrage

When you log on to Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, you think that what you are seeing is a neutral reflection of your community, and what [your community] is talking about. When you interact with it, you think that you are getting feedback from your peers, from other people online. But in fact, what you were seeing, and what you were experiencing, are choices made by these incredibly sophisticated automated systems that are designed to figure out exactly what combination of posts, what way to sequence those posts, how to present them to you will most engage certain very specific cognitive triggers and cognitive weak points that are meant to get certain emotions going. They are meant to trigger certain impulses and instincts that will make you feel really compelled to come back to the platform to spend a lot of time on it.

Those [upsetting posts] 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 online. And it's the kind of content that engages your eyeball, and most engages your emotions, because it taps into these deeply evolved instincts that we have as social animals, as group animals, for basically self preservation.

Meta, formerly known as The Facebook company, owns Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram.
Leon Neal / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Meta, formerly known as The Facebook company, owns Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram.

On how this ties into social media platforms reaching viewership goals

So what the systems that govern YouTube and govern what you see realized, was that to serve that [viewership] goal, they would need to be providing new content that would create some sort of a sense of crisis, and some sort of a sense that you and your identity were under threat.

So what that might mean is that if you're looking for, let's say, health tips, 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 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.

On how so many are able to use social media without becoming radicalized

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 have a much sharper view of people in the other party, or maybe people who just support another figure within the political party that you support, it will make you have harsher views towards outgroups generally, and it will make you more prone to internally feeling in your in your own self outrage and moral outrage. That is something that I think we do all feel. And that might ring true to those of us who spend time on social media, who don't become crazy conspiracy theorists, but will feel that pull on us.

On possible solutions

Whenever I would ask the experts who study this, what do they think? 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 it is 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 [social media] brings, which is real, and mitigate some of the harms.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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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.