Review of “The Hype Machine” by Sinan Aral

by Ali Minai

Given where we find ourselves in this late November of 2020, it is hard to think of a book more relevant or timely than The Hype Machine by Sinan Aral. The author is the David Austin Professor of Management and Professor of Information Technology and Marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As one of the world’s foremost experts on social media and its effects, Prof. Aral is the perfect person to look at how this phenomenon has changed the world and the human experience. This is what he sets out to do in his new book, The Hype Machine, published under the Currency Imprint of Random House this September, and with considerable success.

The book provides an excellent overview of where things stand with social media, its promise and its peril. For anyone looking for a single, accessibly non-technical source of information and insight on these important issues, this book is essential reading. The book is very well-organized, and the logical flow – both across and within chapters – is remarkably smooth. Overall, the book is an easy read that informs and educates the reader without getting mired in technical jargon – no mean feat for a book about a technical field that is rife with jargon. And, while a large proportion of the book simply communicates information on where things stand and how different social media platforms are shaping the lives of their users, Prof. Aral does not shy away from building a useful abstract framework in which to place all this, and to address the complex issues raised as a result.

The tone of the book is set by its title. The decision to use the term “hype machine” for the social media system enveloping the globe today is both insightful and somewhat jarring. Insightful in that it cuts through the clutter of various functions that can be ascribed to social media and identifies hype as its core function – or at least its core effect. But the name is jarring for the same reason. For all its accessibility, this is an insider’s book, written by someone who sees the nuts and bolts – and the underlying incentives – of the system. For most users of social media, the hype is only part of the experience. Real information, knowledge, and love also flow on social media. People communicate, form relationships, and share experiences; old friends reconnect; families come together; collaborations are born. For people experiencing all this, the hype – the fake news, the loss of privacy, the selling of ads, the ever-changing trends – is largely subliminal. But perhaps the author intended to send a wakeup call to the billions of users too engrossed in their positive experiences on social media to care much about the underlying dangers. Indeed, the sub-title of the book, “How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health – and How We Must Adapt” signals this desire to jolt people awake, though the book is not quite as terrifying as this statement might suggest. It does try to balance the positive and the negative, laying out both the benefits and the hazards of social media, though one does end the book feeling that the positive value of social media at the personal and human level received relatively short shrift at the expense of its large-scale socioeconomic impact.

These large-scale problems, however, are all too real, and the book really excels in their analysis. In Chapter 1, at the very outset of the book, Prof. Aral identifies three primary forces that underlie the transformations social media is creating – what he calls, “… the trifecta of hypersocilaization, personalized mass persuasion, and the tyranny of trends” (p. 12). This, he says, are the hallmarks of the “New Social Age” – a fundamental transformation of human society across the world. He also states the purpose of the book with admirable clarity:

My goals in this book are to describe the science of how the Hype Machine works and to explore how it affects our politics, our businesses, and our relationships; to explore the consequences of the Hype Machine for our society, both positive and negative; and to discuss how we can—through company policy, social norms, government regulation, and more advanced software code—achieve its promise while avoiding its peril. (p. 19)

The book lives up to these goals reasonably well.

One of the most striking things in reading The Hype Machine is its topical relevance. It is literally a book ripped from the headlines, with election interference, the Mueller Report, President Trump’s impeachment, Infowars propaganda, and even the COVID-19 pandemic and its deniers woven into the text. Ominously, it states that, “…. while social media can help foster a transparent, democratic, egalitarian society, it can also be used to erect a polarized, authoritarian police state. Today we are at a crossroads, caught between the promise and the peril ….” P. 22). Chapter 2 of the book then gets into one of the main perils: All the ways in which social media and its underlying algorithms can – and do – warp the perception of reality on a global scale. The author discusses fake news, election manipulation, science denial, AI-generated deep-fakes, etc., to lay out the perils that are all too clear to many – but perhaps not clear enough to many more. Of special interest is the author’s non-technical overview of his own groundbreaking work on fake news, leading to a depressing confirmation of the old adage about a lie circling the world thrice while truth is still putting on its shoes.

Chapter 3 is the conceptual heart of the book where the author lays out a description of the Hype Machine that is both abstract and illuminating – a rare combination. In particular, he describes the Hype Machine in terms of three main components: Digital social networks as the substrate; machine learning and data analytics algorithms as the process – rather too cutely termed the “Hype Loop”; and smartphones as the medium. This tripartite system is then posited to be governed by four factors: Money, code, norms, and laws. Interestingly, Prof. Aral uses the term “levers” to describe these factors, indicating that these actuators have a dual nature. On the one hand, they are what the Hype Machine uses to move us; on the other, they also provide a way for us to push back on the machine. This, indeed, is the central thesis of the book at its most abstract level. Having laid out this framework at the beginning, the rest of Chapter 3 is used describe the first two components – the substrate and the process – in considerable detail, with the third – smartphones – getting more cursory treatment. This is a very appealing part of the book, and, for many readers, will be a most illuminating introduction to the concepts, motivations and mechanisms underlying social media from the perspective of the corporations that run it.

The next seven chapters explicate the issues raised in the first three, ranging from the effect of social media on the brain and the human psyche to the effects of hypersocialization, mass persuasion, global trends, and the wisdom (and madness) of the crowds – all discussed through examples of real situations and illuminated by results from numerous research studies. This middle section of the book is both very useful and very readable, and will satisfy readers ranging from those looking for scientific analysis to those more comfortable with experience and anecdote. As is the case throughout the book, the author strikes a good balance between conceptual – though not overly technical – detail and accessibility, with something for readers at all levels.

The last two chapters of the book represent the integrative and prescriptive part of the book. In Chapter 11 – fittingly entitled “Social Media’s Promise Is Also Its Peril” – Prof. Aral provides a detailed and insightful discussion of the delicate tradeoff between the benefits and costs of social media. This begins with specific cases such as the role of social media in the protests leading to the Paris terrorist attacks of January 2015 and the influence of the Telegram platform in challenging authoritarian governments, and then gets deeper into issues such as transparency, privacy, free speech, unequal opportunity, and collective action – all of which pose paradoxes that are almost impossible to resolve. The chapter closes with a clear statement of the central challenge that society faces with regard to social media:

When technology exacerbates the spread of misinformation, terrorism, election manipulation, disrup­tions of public health, and the loss of privacy, and those harms are not priced into the market, sensible government regulation becomes nec­essary.

But there’s a real danger that ill-conceived legislation will shackle innovation, free speech, productivity, growth, consumer surpluses, and the social and economic benefits of social technologies. When we understand that the sources of social media’s promise are also the sources of the ills we are trying to avoid, it becomes clear that blunt attempts at regulation are likely to fail. Social media regulation must be carefully thought through to preserve the promise while avoiding the peril. (p. 284)

In the final chapter, Prof. Aral shares his prescription for addressing the perils of the Hype Machine without trading away its promise. One of his recommendations is to allow users portability of their data and social graph (a user’s network of social contacts) across platforms. This seems appealing in principle, but its real-world effectiveness is hard to estimate. To begin with, portability across different types of platforms would be absurd: A user’s social graph on Facebook may comprise friends and family, on LinkedIn mainly professional contacts, and on Twitter complete strangers. The content in these cases would also be very different. Where portability can make a difference is in allowing the emergence of multiple platforms of the same type through market competition, so users can migrate between them if they don’t like their current platform’s policies on data sharing, news filtering, ad targeting, etc. This is clearly the author’s intent, embodied in his hope that

By encouraging compe­tition, we have a shot at shifting the economic incentives that guide the design of the Hype Machine from a focus on the value that platforms extract from consumers to a focus on the value they should deliver to consumers. (p. 320)

But for all its simplicity and elegance, this market-based approach appears to rely too much on the rationality of human choices and the objectivity of human values. Caution is in order on both counts.

Experience, history, and research in behavioral economics all indicate that people derive value much more readily from the confirmation of their biases and the validation of their prejudices than from objective truth. Add to this the limited human capacity for ascertaining the truth or falsity of information in an increasingly complex world, and a policy relying on the probity of human judgment looks shaky at best. For example, those who are most deluded by fake news on Facebook are also the least likely to realize it or feel a need to do anything about it. As the author’s own research shows, sensational lies are more attractive to people than dry truths, which means that, given a choice of platforms, people will continue to flock to those that confirm their biases and satisfy their need for sensationalism, and the platforms will compete less to enhance the authenticity of the information they carry than on how to exploit the human fondness for conspiracy and drama. Competition is an excellent device when applied to concrete things like bread and toasters where value can be determined clearly and immediately. Information, ideas, and opinions are a different class of commodity where value itself is a matter of opinion – and often of conflict. It seems too optimistic to expect market forces to neutralize a tendency rooted so deep in human nature.

Recognizing this and appreciating the delicacy of the issues involved, Prof. Aral also recommends the establishment of a bipartisan National Commission on Technology and Democracy – “a diverse set of experts …. with scientists, industry representatives, and policy makers who understand the issues and how they interrelate” (p. 319). This too is a good idea in principle but anyone who has observed the trajectory of American politics over the last two or three decades should be skeptical. Since 2000, America has experienced the 9/11 attacks, the Great Recession, two endless wars, foreign interference in national elections, and now a pandemic that has killed more than a quarter million Americans. National commissions, task forces, bipartisan select committees, think tank studies, and special counsels have come and gone without resolution on any of these issues. In a secular, democratic society, epistemic authority flows from institutions and experts rather than from divine sanction or government diktat. Ironically, one effect of the rise of social media has been to devalue the opinion of real experts in the eyes of the public and the representatives they elect – as illustrated vividly in the public and political response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A society that cannot heed scientists and physicians in the midst of mass death is unlikely to let a commission of experts settle issues like free speech, privacy, and political expression. The course proposed by Prof. Aral is a reasonable one – and that may be its biggest shortcoming.

One final note of caution is in order with any prescription of policies for social media. Each social media platform is a highly distributed, self-organizing complex system. These systems link together rather haphazardly to form a larger distributed complex system that can be identified with the author’s Hype Machine. And finally, this supremely complex system is in continuous interaction with another far more complex system: human society. If there is one thing we have learned about such highly distributed and dynamic complex systems, it is the dominance of unintended consequences for well-intended actions. Equally important is the human propensity to exploit any unforeseen opportunities that may arise from these unintended consequences. Indeed, that is how we have ended up with fake news and conspiracy theories dominating social media. It is a little too optimistic to believe that more well-intentioned interventions by committees of experts will have predictable consequences. Indeed, the book itself describes several ways in which the European Union’s well-meaning GDPR policy on Internet privacy has had seriously negative unintended consequences. It is hard to see how the approach recommended in the book would avoid a similar outcome.

Stylistically, the book is very readable, if slightly dry. Case studies and anecdotes are discussed in a matter-of-fact way, which increases understanding but perhaps at some cost to reader engagement. Most of the important phenomena discussed are approached through rigorous scientific studies – all cited in the very valuable and copious notes at the end of the book – though a side effect of these citations is the subtle implication that all useful work on the issues relating to social media is occurring at a few elite academic institutions in collaboration with a few very large corporations. This is exacerbated further by author’s propensity to describe the investigators of almost all cited studies as “friends” and “colleagues”, though this is probably no more than an expression of collegiality.

In summary, The Hype Machine is an excellent and very timely addition to the genre of writings on the Internet Age. Its formulation of the issues posed by the rise of social media, its description of the system, and its analysis of promise and peril are exceptionally informative and insightful. As such, this book should be essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the current moment in human socioeconomic development. Ultimately, The Hype Machine is a book more about describing a set of immense problems facing human society today than about prescribing short-term solutions, but it is surely a bold step on the path to a solution in the long-term.