Download high-resolution image Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00

The Hype Machine

How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health--and How We Must Adapt

Author Sinan Aral
Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00
A landmark insider’s tour of how social media affects our decision-making and shapes our world in ways both useful and dangerous, with critical insights into the social media trends of the 2020 election and beyond 

“The book might be described as prophetic. . . . At least two of Aral’s three predictions have come to fruition.”—New York

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY WIRED • LONGLISTED FOR THE PORCHLIGHT BUSINESS BOOK AWARD

Social media connected the world—and gave rise to fake news and increasing polarization. It is paramount, MIT professor Sinan Aral says, that we recognize the outsize effect social media has on us—on our politics, our economy, and even our personal health—in order to steer today’s social technology toward its great promise while avoiding the ways it can pull us apart.

Drawing on decades of his own research and business experience, Aral goes under the hood of the most powerful social networks to tackle the critical question of just how much social media actually shapes our choices, for better or worse. He shows how the tech behind social media offers the same set of behavior influencing levers to everyone who hopes to change the way we think and act—from Russian hackers to brand marketers—which is why its consequences affect everything from elections to business, dating to health. Along the way, he covers a wide array of topics, including how network effects fuel Twitter’s and Facebook’s massive growth, the neuroscience of how social media affects our brains, the real consequences of fake news, the power of social ratings, and the impact of social media on our kids.

In mapping out strategies for being more thoughtful consumers of social media, The Hype Machine offers the definitive guide to understanding and harnessing for good the technology that has redefined our world overnight.
Chapter 1

The New Social Age

This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature. —­Don DeLillo

Human beings have always been a social species. We’ve been communicating, cooperating, and coordinating with one another since we were hunting and gathering. But today something is different. Over the last decade, we’ve doused our kindling fire of human interaction with high-­octane gasoline. We’ve constructed an expansive, multifaceted machine that spans the globe and conducts the flow of information, opinions, and behaviors through society. This Hype Machine connects us in a worldwide communication network, exchanging trillions of messages a day, guided by algorithms, designed to inform, persuade, entertain, and manipulate us.

The object of this machine is the human psyche. It was designed to stimulate our neurological impulses, to draw us in and persuade us to change how we shop, vote, and exercise, and even who we love. It analyzes us to give us options for what to read, buy, and believe. It then learns from our choices and iteratively optimizes its offerings. As it operates, it generates a data exhaust that traces each of our preferences, desires, interests, and time-­stamped, geolocated activities around the world. It then feeds on its own data exhaust, refining its process, perfecting its analysis, and improving its persuasive leverage. Its motivation is money, which it maximizes by engaging us. The more precise it gets, the more engaging and persuasive it becomes. The more persuasive it becomes, the more revenue it generates and the bigger it grows. This is the story of the Hype Machine—­the social media industrial complex: how it was designed, how it works, how it affects us, and how we can adapt to it. And the story opens in Crimea.

Ten Days

On a cold day in February 2014, heavily armed gunmen surrounded the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, Ukraine. They wore no sovereign markings but were later confirmed to be Russian special forces reacting to the deposition of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych just days before. By all accounts, the gunmen were organized and professional. After breaking through the front door, they cut the building’s communications, confiscated all mobile electronic devices, and systematically controlled who entered and exited the building, maintaining a tight perimeter and allowing no foreign journalists inside.

A few hours later, amid reports of heavy intimidation and fraud by the gunmen inside, the Crimean parliament voted to dissolve the government and replace Prime Minister Anatolii Mohyliov with Sergey Aksyonov, whose pro­-Russian Unity Party had won only 4 percent of the vote in the previous election. Less than twenty-­four hours later, similarly unmarked troops occupied the Simferopol and Sevastopol international airports and set up checkpoints on Crimean roads throughout the region. Two days later Aksyonov, who had earned the nickname “the Goblin” during his days as a businessman with ties both to the Russian mafia and to pro-­Russian political and military groups, wrote a personal letter to Vladimir Putin, in his new capacity as the de facto prime minister of Crimea, formally requesting Russian assistance in maintaining peace and security there.

Before the Ukrainian government could declare Aksyonov’s appointment unconstitutional, pro-­Russian protests were whipped up throughout Crimea, developing a groundswell of visible support for reunification with Russia. The sentiment seemed one-­sided, with many in Crimea expressing a strong desire to return to Russia. Within hours of Aksyonov requesting assistance, Putin received formal approval from the Russian Federation Council to send in troops. The Russian consulate began issuing passports in Crimea, and Ukrainian journalists were prohibited from entering the region. The next day Ukrainian defenses were under siege by the Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Army. Five days later, just ten days after the ordeal began, the Supreme Council of Crimea voted to re-­accede to Russia after sixty years as part of Ukraine.

It was one of the quickest and quietest annexations of the postwar era. As former secretary of state Madeleine Albright testified, it “marked the first time since World War II that European borders have been altered by force.” In just ten days, the region was flipped, like a light switch, from one sovereignty to another with barely a whisper.

The debate about what happened in Crimea continues today. Russia denies it was an annexation. Putin views it, instead, as an accession by Crimea to Russia. His adversaries claim it was a hostile encroachment by a foreign power. In essence, there was a dispute over the will of the Crimean people—­a clash of competing realities, if you will. On the one hand, Russia claimed Crimean citizens overwhelmingly supported a return to the Russian Federation. On the other hand, pro-­Ukrainian voices claimed the pro-­Russian sentiment had been orchestrated by Moscow rather than by the people themselves.

Framing the Crimean reality was essential to restraining foreign intervention in the conflict. If this was an annexation, NATO would surely have to respond. But if this was an accession, overwhelmingly supported by the Crimean people, intervention would be harder to justify. So while the clandestine military and political operations were ruthlessly organized and flawlessly executed, Russia’s information operation, designed to frame the reality of what happened on the ground in Crimea, was even more sophisticated, perhaps the most sophisticated the world had ever seen. And when it came to framing that reality, social media—­what I call the Hype Machine—­was indispensable.

The Spread of Fake News Online

To communicate my perspective on Crimea, I have to first take you on a detour, through a story within a story, to give you some context for how I understand the events that unfolded in Ukraine. In 2016, two years after the annexation of Crimea, I was in my lab at MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hard at work on an important research project with my colleagues Soroush Vosoughi and Deb Roy. We had been working for some time, in direct collaboration with Twitter, on what was then the largest-­ever longitudinal study of the spread of fake news online. It analyzed the diffusion of all the fact-­checked true and false rumors that had ever spread on Twitter, in the ten years from its inception in 2006 to 2017.

This study, which was published on the cover of Science in March 2018, revealed some of the first large-­scale evidence on how fake news spreads online. During our research, we discovered what I still, to this day, consider some of the scariest scientific results I have ever encountered. We found that false news diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information—in some cases, by an order of magnitude (Figure 1.1). Whoever said “a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” was right. We had uncovered a reality-­distortion machine in the pipes of social media platforms, through which falsehood traveled like lightning, while the truth dripped along like molasses.

But buried in these more sensational results was a less obvious result, one that is directly relevant to Crimea. As part of our analysis, before building more sophisticated models of the spread of true and false news on Twitter, we produced a simpler graph. We plotted the numbers of true and false news cascades (unbroken chains of person-to-­person retweets of a story) in different categories (like politics, business, terrorism, and war) over time. The total spread of false rumors had risen over time and peaked at the end of 2013, in 2015, and again at the end of 2016, corresponding to the last U.S. presidential election. The data showed clear increases in the total number of false political rumors during the 2012 and 2016 U.S. presidential elections, confirming the political relevance of the spread of false news.

But another, more subtle result also drew our attention. Over the ten-­year period from 2006 to 2017, there was only one visible spike in the number of rumors that contained both partially true and partially false information, which we called “mixed” rumors. In the original graph, opposite, it was difficult to see. So we filtered the data and replotted the graph, this time considering only political news. That’s when we saw it—­a single, clear spike in the spread of stories that contained partially true and partially false information in the two months between February and March 2014. It corresponded directly to the Russian annexation of Crimea.

This result was striking, not just because it was the largest spike of mixed news in the history of verified stories spreading on Twitter (and more than four times larger than any other spike in mixed political news), but also because it ended almost as quickly as it began, right after the annexation was complete. When we investigated further, we discovered a systematic appropriation of social media by pro-­Russian entities that proactively used the Hype Machine to control the Ukrainian national perception of the events in Crimea, and the international perception of what was happening there, to ultimately frame the will of the Crimean people.
“Eminently relevant . . . [The Hype Machine] offers hope that we can re-engineer social media to better serve society.”New Scientist

“A timely and far-reaching book of great interest to anyone concerned with building a healthy public sphere in the twenty-first century.”—Zeynep Tufekci, author of Twitter and Tear Gas

“What Sinan Aral has achieved with his new book The Hype Machine is probably the most comprehensive and best-structured presentation of social media’s effects based on existing scientific studies and collective experience.”—The Y Circus
 
“The scenario Aral describes should scare any technology leader, user of social media technology, or citizen within a democracy. . . . This book is worth reading to understand the sophistication of social media analytics alone.”—Myles Suer, CMS Wire

“This is the most important book of the year! Our friendships, economy, and society now depend on billions of social media connections, and no one on the planet understands them better than Sinan Aral. . . . A lively, engaging masterpiece.”—Erik Brynjolfsson, bestselling co-author of The Second Machine Age

“In a sea of books about social media, this is the one to read. Aral understands the new social age like no one else, and The Hype Machine offers the single best examination of how social media works and how we can make it better.”—Clint Watts, author of Messing with the Enemy

“An immensely interesting, informative, and provocative look at the biggest technological questions of our time, and the future of our democracy.”—Eli Pariser, bestselling author of The Filter Bubble

The Hype Machine is a riveting story of social media’s impact on how we live. Part spy novel and part science thriller, this book is an essential guide to ensuring our digital future.”—Jonah Berger, bestselling author of Contagious

“A breathtaking journey through the economics, technology, and behavioral psychology of how we can capture the promise of social media and avoid its peril.”—Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler and a Time Person of the Year for 2018

“Full of rigor and insight, The Hype Machine tackles some of the most pressing policy questions of the Digital Age while keeping you on the edge of your seat. . . . A must-read for policy makers, business executives, and parents alike.”—DJ Patil, former U.S. chief data scientist

“In this meticulous dissection of social media, Aral gives us a much-needed framework for understanding what happened in the 2016 election, and what will likely happen again if nothing changes.”—Scott Galloway, bestselling author of The Four

“A useful, data-rich analysis of how we use social media—and how it uses us.”—Kirkus Reviews
 
“Aral takes readers on a wild journey to explore the role of social media in our lives. [The Hype Machine is] timely for readers interested in important issues, such as data ethics, privacy, platform policies and regulations, the role of social media tech giants in our lives, and how these tools impact consumers’ behaviors.”Library Journal
Sinan Aral is 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 is an active entrepreneur and venture capitalist who served as chief scientist at several startups; co-founded Manifest Capital, a VC fund that grows startups into the Hype Machine; and worked closely with Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, WeChat, and The New York Times, among other companies. He currently serves on the advisory boards of the Alan Turing Institute, the British National Institute for Data Science in London, the Centre for Responsible Media Technology and Innovation in Norway, and C6 Bank, Brazil’s first all-digital bank. View titles by Sinan Aral

About

A landmark insider’s tour of how social media affects our decision-making and shapes our world in ways both useful and dangerous, with critical insights into the social media trends of the 2020 election and beyond 

“The book might be described as prophetic. . . . At least two of Aral’s three predictions have come to fruition.”—New York

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY WIRED • LONGLISTED FOR THE PORCHLIGHT BUSINESS BOOK AWARD

Social media connected the world—and gave rise to fake news and increasing polarization. It is paramount, MIT professor Sinan Aral says, that we recognize the outsize effect social media has on us—on our politics, our economy, and even our personal health—in order to steer today’s social technology toward its great promise while avoiding the ways it can pull us apart.

Drawing on decades of his own research and business experience, Aral goes under the hood of the most powerful social networks to tackle the critical question of just how much social media actually shapes our choices, for better or worse. He shows how the tech behind social media offers the same set of behavior influencing levers to everyone who hopes to change the way we think and act—from Russian hackers to brand marketers—which is why its consequences affect everything from elections to business, dating to health. Along the way, he covers a wide array of topics, including how network effects fuel Twitter’s and Facebook’s massive growth, the neuroscience of how social media affects our brains, the real consequences of fake news, the power of social ratings, and the impact of social media on our kids.

In mapping out strategies for being more thoughtful consumers of social media, The Hype Machine offers the definitive guide to understanding and harnessing for good the technology that has redefined our world overnight.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

The New Social Age

This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature. —­Don DeLillo

Human beings have always been a social species. We’ve been communicating, cooperating, and coordinating with one another since we were hunting and gathering. But today something is different. Over the last decade, we’ve doused our kindling fire of human interaction with high-­octane gasoline. We’ve constructed an expansive, multifaceted machine that spans the globe and conducts the flow of information, opinions, and behaviors through society. This Hype Machine connects us in a worldwide communication network, exchanging trillions of messages a day, guided by algorithms, designed to inform, persuade, entertain, and manipulate us.

The object of this machine is the human psyche. It was designed to stimulate our neurological impulses, to draw us in and persuade us to change how we shop, vote, and exercise, and even who we love. It analyzes us to give us options for what to read, buy, and believe. It then learns from our choices and iteratively optimizes its offerings. As it operates, it generates a data exhaust that traces each of our preferences, desires, interests, and time-­stamped, geolocated activities around the world. It then feeds on its own data exhaust, refining its process, perfecting its analysis, and improving its persuasive leverage. Its motivation is money, which it maximizes by engaging us. The more precise it gets, the more engaging and persuasive it becomes. The more persuasive it becomes, the more revenue it generates and the bigger it grows. This is the story of the Hype Machine—­the social media industrial complex: how it was designed, how it works, how it affects us, and how we can adapt to it. And the story opens in Crimea.

Ten Days

On a cold day in February 2014, heavily armed gunmen surrounded the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, Ukraine. They wore no sovereign markings but were later confirmed to be Russian special forces reacting to the deposition of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych just days before. By all accounts, the gunmen were organized and professional. After breaking through the front door, they cut the building’s communications, confiscated all mobile electronic devices, and systematically controlled who entered and exited the building, maintaining a tight perimeter and allowing no foreign journalists inside.

A few hours later, amid reports of heavy intimidation and fraud by the gunmen inside, the Crimean parliament voted to dissolve the government and replace Prime Minister Anatolii Mohyliov with Sergey Aksyonov, whose pro­-Russian Unity Party had won only 4 percent of the vote in the previous election. Less than twenty-­four hours later, similarly unmarked troops occupied the Simferopol and Sevastopol international airports and set up checkpoints on Crimean roads throughout the region. Two days later Aksyonov, who had earned the nickname “the Goblin” during his days as a businessman with ties both to the Russian mafia and to pro-­Russian political and military groups, wrote a personal letter to Vladimir Putin, in his new capacity as the de facto prime minister of Crimea, formally requesting Russian assistance in maintaining peace and security there.

Before the Ukrainian government could declare Aksyonov’s appointment unconstitutional, pro-­Russian protests were whipped up throughout Crimea, developing a groundswell of visible support for reunification with Russia. The sentiment seemed one-­sided, with many in Crimea expressing a strong desire to return to Russia. Within hours of Aksyonov requesting assistance, Putin received formal approval from the Russian Federation Council to send in troops. The Russian consulate began issuing passports in Crimea, and Ukrainian journalists were prohibited from entering the region. The next day Ukrainian defenses were under siege by the Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Army. Five days later, just ten days after the ordeal began, the Supreme Council of Crimea voted to re-­accede to Russia after sixty years as part of Ukraine.

It was one of the quickest and quietest annexations of the postwar era. As former secretary of state Madeleine Albright testified, it “marked the first time since World War II that European borders have been altered by force.” In just ten days, the region was flipped, like a light switch, from one sovereignty to another with barely a whisper.

The debate about what happened in Crimea continues today. Russia denies it was an annexation. Putin views it, instead, as an accession by Crimea to Russia. His adversaries claim it was a hostile encroachment by a foreign power. In essence, there was a dispute over the will of the Crimean people—­a clash of competing realities, if you will. On the one hand, Russia claimed Crimean citizens overwhelmingly supported a return to the Russian Federation. On the other hand, pro-­Ukrainian voices claimed the pro-­Russian sentiment had been orchestrated by Moscow rather than by the people themselves.

Framing the Crimean reality was essential to restraining foreign intervention in the conflict. If this was an annexation, NATO would surely have to respond. But if this was an accession, overwhelmingly supported by the Crimean people, intervention would be harder to justify. So while the clandestine military and political operations were ruthlessly organized and flawlessly executed, Russia’s information operation, designed to frame the reality of what happened on the ground in Crimea, was even more sophisticated, perhaps the most sophisticated the world had ever seen. And when it came to framing that reality, social media—­what I call the Hype Machine—­was indispensable.

The Spread of Fake News Online

To communicate my perspective on Crimea, I have to first take you on a detour, through a story within a story, to give you some context for how I understand the events that unfolded in Ukraine. In 2016, two years after the annexation of Crimea, I was in my lab at MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hard at work on an important research project with my colleagues Soroush Vosoughi and Deb Roy. We had been working for some time, in direct collaboration with Twitter, on what was then the largest-­ever longitudinal study of the spread of fake news online. It analyzed the diffusion of all the fact-­checked true and false rumors that had ever spread on Twitter, in the ten years from its inception in 2006 to 2017.

This study, which was published on the cover of Science in March 2018, revealed some of the first large-­scale evidence on how fake news spreads online. During our research, we discovered what I still, to this day, consider some of the scariest scientific results I have ever encountered. We found that false news diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information—in some cases, by an order of magnitude (Figure 1.1). Whoever said “a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” was right. We had uncovered a reality-­distortion machine in the pipes of social media platforms, through which falsehood traveled like lightning, while the truth dripped along like molasses.

But buried in these more sensational results was a less obvious result, one that is directly relevant to Crimea. As part of our analysis, before building more sophisticated models of the spread of true and false news on Twitter, we produced a simpler graph. We plotted the numbers of true and false news cascades (unbroken chains of person-to-­person retweets of a story) in different categories (like politics, business, terrorism, and war) over time. The total spread of false rumors had risen over time and peaked at the end of 2013, in 2015, and again at the end of 2016, corresponding to the last U.S. presidential election. The data showed clear increases in the total number of false political rumors during the 2012 and 2016 U.S. presidential elections, confirming the political relevance of the spread of false news.

But another, more subtle result also drew our attention. Over the ten-­year period from 2006 to 2017, there was only one visible spike in the number of rumors that contained both partially true and partially false information, which we called “mixed” rumors. In the original graph, opposite, it was difficult to see. So we filtered the data and replotted the graph, this time considering only political news. That’s when we saw it—­a single, clear spike in the spread of stories that contained partially true and partially false information in the two months between February and March 2014. It corresponded directly to the Russian annexation of Crimea.

This result was striking, not just because it was the largest spike of mixed news in the history of verified stories spreading on Twitter (and more than four times larger than any other spike in mixed political news), but also because it ended almost as quickly as it began, right after the annexation was complete. When we investigated further, we discovered a systematic appropriation of social media by pro-­Russian entities that proactively used the Hype Machine to control the Ukrainian national perception of the events in Crimea, and the international perception of what was happening there, to ultimately frame the will of the Crimean people.

Praise

“Eminently relevant . . . [The Hype Machine] offers hope that we can re-engineer social media to better serve society.”New Scientist

“A timely and far-reaching book of great interest to anyone concerned with building a healthy public sphere in the twenty-first century.”—Zeynep Tufekci, author of Twitter and Tear Gas

“What Sinan Aral has achieved with his new book The Hype Machine is probably the most comprehensive and best-structured presentation of social media’s effects based on existing scientific studies and collective experience.”—The Y Circus
 
“The scenario Aral describes should scare any technology leader, user of social media technology, or citizen within a democracy. . . . This book is worth reading to understand the sophistication of social media analytics alone.”—Myles Suer, CMS Wire

“This is the most important book of the year! Our friendships, economy, and society now depend on billions of social media connections, and no one on the planet understands them better than Sinan Aral. . . . A lively, engaging masterpiece.”—Erik Brynjolfsson, bestselling co-author of The Second Machine Age

“In a sea of books about social media, this is the one to read. Aral understands the new social age like no one else, and The Hype Machine offers the single best examination of how social media works and how we can make it better.”—Clint Watts, author of Messing with the Enemy

“An immensely interesting, informative, and provocative look at the biggest technological questions of our time, and the future of our democracy.”—Eli Pariser, bestselling author of The Filter Bubble

The Hype Machine is a riveting story of social media’s impact on how we live. Part spy novel and part science thriller, this book is an essential guide to ensuring our digital future.”—Jonah Berger, bestselling author of Contagious

“A breathtaking journey through the economics, technology, and behavioral psychology of how we can capture the promise of social media and avoid its peril.”—Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler and a Time Person of the Year for 2018

“Full of rigor and insight, The Hype Machine tackles some of the most pressing policy questions of the Digital Age while keeping you on the edge of your seat. . . . A must-read for policy makers, business executives, and parents alike.”—DJ Patil, former U.S. chief data scientist

“In this meticulous dissection of social media, Aral gives us a much-needed framework for understanding what happened in the 2016 election, and what will likely happen again if nothing changes.”—Scott Galloway, bestselling author of The Four

“A useful, data-rich analysis of how we use social media—and how it uses us.”—Kirkus Reviews
 
“Aral takes readers on a wild journey to explore the role of social media in our lives. [The Hype Machine is] timely for readers interested in important issues, such as data ethics, privacy, platform policies and regulations, the role of social media tech giants in our lives, and how these tools impact consumers’ behaviors.”Library Journal

Author

Sinan Aral is 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 is an active entrepreneur and venture capitalist who served as chief scientist at several startups; co-founded Manifest Capital, a VC fund that grows startups into the Hype Machine; and worked closely with Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, WeChat, and The New York Times, among other companies. He currently serves on the advisory boards of the Alan Turing Institute, the British National Institute for Data Science in London, the Centre for Responsible Media Technology and Innovation in Norway, and C6 Bank, Brazil’s first all-digital bank. View titles by Sinan Aral