The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health and How We Must Adapt by Sinan Aral

The Hype Machine

The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health and How We Must Adapt by Sinan Aral takes an in-depth look at the impact that social media has had on our society. He covers the positive and negative aspects and offers advice for how scientists, industrial leaders, and policymakers can collaborate to clean up issues associated with things like fake news, election tampering, and free speech. This is a book that every consumer of modern media needs to read so click here to get your copy now.

Preface: Pandemics, Promise, and Peril

  • Sinan’s Hype Machine is the real-time communications ecosystem created by social media. We start by seeing how COIVD pushed billions of more people to laptops and smartphones as many digital Luddites were forced on to various online platforms. Even routine users found themselves using it more and young people who were given limited screen time by parents prior to COVID started spending the entire school day online. People responded by organizing Zoom meetings to brainstorm problems old and new. As automated “bot” software along with cyborg and troll networks spread misinformation about things like COVID and elections, others got to work to fight these new digital enemies. As we have seen there is potential for great promise and peril. This book takes a look at both and offers suggestions for how we can make the most of the Hype Machine.

1. The New Social Age

  • Humans have always been social animals. The Hype Machine has simply poured gas on our campfires. It is designed to inform, persuade, entertain, and manipulate us. It learns from our choices and location to improve its persuasive leverage. The motivation of course is money. It can rightly be considered the social media industrial complex
  • We start with the story of how Russia used social media as a key part of their armed takeover of Crimea in 2014. Every time a pro-Ukrainian message was posted it was swarmed by messages from Russian bots and subsequently taken down. Most people were left with the idea that the people of Crimea wanted to be part of Russia.
  • During his PhD work, Sinan realized that statistics required observations to be independent while modern networking made everything interdependent. His epiphany at the time was that digital social networking was going to turbocharge how information, behavior, economic opportunity, and political ideology flowed between people. His thesis was on how information flows through digital social networks and as he now evaluates hundreds of companies each year, he gets to see what is coming. He knows that we don’t know enough and advocating for more research is a theme of this book.

2. The End of Reality

  • Fake news isn’t new, but the speed at which it can spread can cause real consequences. Rumors of gas shortages and a shooting at the White house caused long gas lines and a brief stock market crash. Some put out positive fake news about stocks they own and sell when the price goes up (pump and dump). We know that Russia made an effort to impact the 2016 election using the Hype Machine, but we don’t know the impact that effort had. Using social media in an effort to impact elections is a global problem.
  • Another area where fake news distributed by social media has had an impact is the world of vaccines. Anti-vaxers have used it and caused some communities to decrease vaccination percents below the point where they offer heard immunity. This has caused an increase in cases of measles, a disease that the US declared conquered in 2000. Another problem is that several studies show that false news spreads faster than real news. Political false news travels faster than any other category.
  • Social bots are software controlled social media profiles. They pounce on fake news and retweet it broadly. Real people then pick it up and do most of the spreading. They often mention influential humans who can give them a greater reach. Novelty attracts attention (the novelty hypotheses) and as a result, false news is more novel. Big repetition causes belief. (Doug: This is something that Hitler took advantage of.) People also believe what they already think (confirmation bias) so when you try to convince them that what they believe is false they tend to dig in even harder. Since fake news attracts more readers it makes more money by posting Google ads. This makes it a big business. Generative adversarial networks (GANs) pit two neural networks against each other. One learns from the other’s decisions and optimizes its efforts to fool the other. They can also be used for good. Deepfaked audio can allow one person to sound like another, which has been used to defraud companies.

3. The Hype Machine

  • The Hype Machine is an information processor regulating and directing the flow of information in society. It is comprised of the network itself, the interaction between people and machine intelligence, and the input/output device, which is most commonly the smartphone. In addition to these three components, there are the four levers of Money, Code, Norms, and Law. Networks learn about us by looking at who we are connected to, what we read, and what we buy. People tend to cluster and similar people connect. This causes echo chambers that spread fake news. If one person has strong connections to two others, the others are likely to have at least a weak connection. The small-world phenomenon also shows up in social media as the average distance between any two people is about 4.7 degrees, not six.
  • Sinan describes what he calls the Hype Loop. It starts with machine algorithms sensing who we are by what we say, what we consume, and what we do. It then offers suggestions for things like who to friend and what to buy. We then consume content based on the suggestions and finally, we take action such as making a purchase, sharing content with others, or voting.
  • Connections via social media platforms are much more likely to happen via suggestions offered by algorithms than by people searching. This may also contribute to political polarization as similar people get connected faster. Algorithms also recommend the content we consume. Facebook is now the largest news outlet. Its goal is to attract more likes and more viewership. Some things are best done by the machine. Spam filters and newsfeed ranking are examples. More reflective people tend to want their news recommended for them. Since our smartphones are always with us the Hype Machine is constantly learning about us. Apps constantly share data with five to ten other apps. The next big thing is likely to be the brain-computer interface so we can control things with our thoughts. Think of using your “brain mouse” to click on something you see in an augmented reality space.
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