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

10. The Wisdom and Madness of Crowds

  • The theory known as the wisdom of crowds requires that each person’s opinion is independent and that when aggregated, the opinions of people with diverse ideas have an equal voice. The Hype Machine, however, gives us just the opposite with opinions that are interdependent, voices that are unequal, and birds of a feather flocking together. The popular voice can create trends that drive opinions giving us the madness of crowds. Disproportional popularity is the sole obstacle to wisdom.
  • Initial positive reviews will bias future reviews. Rating curves tend to have a J shape with some low ratings, very few average ratings, and lots of high ratings. The purchasing bias causes lots of high ratings because if you bought it you probably like it. Reporting bias happens because people with high or low opinions are more likely to report than people with average opinions.
  • There is clear evidence that as a nation we are more politically polarized. Has the Hype Machine caused this? It seems to have, at least in part. Friends are more likely to share political views. Since we get a lot of news via friends and algorithms on social media we tend to be exposed to views that we already agree with. The fact that the Hype Machine connects us to people like ourselves and ideas we already believe in, it is a polarizing factor. If we were all exposed to diverse opinions we would feel less antipathy towards the other side. We do know, however, that dynamic networks that rewire in response to feedback lower their error rate over time. (Doug: I make it a point to consume liberal and conservative media daily and make my own decisions on each issue. I should also note that I’m a very happy person.)

11. Social Media’s Promise is Also its Peril

  • It’s clear that social media has been used to coordinate and communicate by a number of protest groups around the world. There have also been instances where it has successfully assisted in rescue and fundraising after natural disasters. Protest movements, however, are fragile as they develop too fast are feature leaderless ad hoc decision making. Governments also co-opt the same technology to fight back.
  • Telegram is a social media tool that allows people to communicate using encrypted messages and severs in jurisdictions that are difficult to access or subpoena. It was used for terrorist attacks in 2015 that lead to the death of 130 people in Paris. In essence, the war on terror is being fought in part via social media as terrorists use it to coordinate their actions and recruiting while governments use it to disrupt terrorist activities. For the good, it was used to raise $250 for ALS research via the Ice Bucket Challenge and aid with the fight against Ebola in Africa.
  • Other findings show how the Hype Machine allows the rich to get richer. There is unequal access so if you have access you can take advantage of the networking opportunities it offers. We know that the bigger your network, the wealthier you are likely to be. Increased social ties strengthen employment opportunities and income. This is especially true for knowledge workers. To counter the bad things that happen we probably need some regulation. This needs to be done with great care as we have seen how poor legislation has had negative impacts in countries like Russia and Uganda.

12. Building a Better Hype Machine

  • Telephone numbers are portable as the law requires phone companies to accept your number if you change providers. The same is not true for social media companies. Facebook messages can’t go to your Twitter followers for example. Sinan argues that we need legislation to make our social data interoperable. He also admits that doing so is more complicated since each social media platform has its own message format, but we have solved more difficult problems in the past. The legislation is on its way and big social media companies have started work on it.
  • Meanwhile, many politicians are calling for a break up of big tech companies by using anti-trust legislation. Sinan warns against this as such efforts could take ten years in the case of Facebook and may not succeed. As such cases move forward the landscape will surely change. Rather we need forward-looking legislation to ensure competition, open markets, and a level playing field. We also need legislation to deal with privacy. The European Union has already done so, but its regulations have cost many jobs. We need laws that will be harmonious with the EU but that also minimize the social, economic, and democratic trade-offs inherent in sweeping privacy reform.
  • To fight fake news we need more platforms like YouTube that not allow ads on videos that deal with fake subjects since a lot of fake news exists to make money. At the same time, we need to improve our media literacy efforts so that people can better spot fakes. Machine learning can also help platforms root out the fake stuff. As for protecting the integrity of our elections, we need a coordinated effort by our governmental, commercial, and scientific communities as very little research has been carried out to date. To deal with these issues and the free speech issue Sinan suggests that we establish a bipartisan National Commission on Technology and Democracy staffed with scientists, industry representatives, and policymakers who understand the issues since it’s clear that the members of Congress do not. In short, he is optimistic that these players can work together to create a much better Hype Machine. Thanks, Sinan.

Sinan Aral

  • Sinan is a scientist, entrepreneur, and investor. He’s the David Austin Professor of Management, Marketing, IT, and Data Science at MIT, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, and head of MIT’s Social Analytics Lab. He was the chief scientist of Social Amp and Humin before cofounding Manifest Capital, a VC fund that grows startups in the Hype Machine. Aral has worked closely with Facebook, Yahoo!, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, WeChat, and THe New York Times. He currently serves on the advisory boards of the Alan Turing Institute, the British National Institute for Data Science, the Center for Responsible Media Technology and Innovation in Norway, and C6 Bank, one of the first all-digital banks of Brazil. You can follow him on Twitter @SINANARAL and on Instagram @PROFESSORSINAN. His email is sinan@mit.edu and his blog is sinanaral.io.
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