When social media turns into a ‘hype machine’

By HU YU / 06-09-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Nowadays, people have developed strong attachments to their mobile devices and the attention economy has given social media great power to influence what we do, who we are, and how we think. Photo: Yang Xue/CSST

In 1923, American writer Walter Lippmann wrote The Phantom Public, where he saw the public as a great beast or a bewildered herd—floundering in the “chaos of local opinions.” He argued that distorted information was inherent within the human mind. People make up their minds before they define facts, while ideally they would gather and analyze the facts before reaching conclusions. Lippmann called the notion of a public competent enough to direct public affairs a “false ideal.”
Lippmann warned readers about the information explosion approximately 100 years ago. Today, in the social media era, people’s lives are bombarded with information and garbage messages, to a level which might alarm even Lippmann. 
In the long span of human history, from papyrus to the internet, progress in information mediums brought extensive dissemination of knowledge, promoted religious reform, brought scientific and technological progress, and the industrial revolutions. Generally speaking, the progress of information mediums is synchronized with that of society. However, this synchronous relationship was broken less than 20 years ago, when social media emerged. As one of the fastest-growing and most popular information mediums, it is hard to define the role social media plays in human society.
Strong individuality, high dependence
Compared with previous mediums, social media features strong levels of individuality and high public dependence. The power of agencies, professionals, and elites, previously exhibited in newspapers, books, radio, television, and the internet have been undercut by social media. On social media, the public acts out of personal will, and past one-directional information transfer has been replaced by two-way information communication, where each social media user is both the receiver and the transmitter. More importantly, with the widespread popularity of mobile terminals, mobile phones have somewhat become “a part of the human body,” and social media has become as indispensable as “air” for the contemporary public. During the COVID-19 pandemic, mobile phones and social media extensively expanded their reach, and now encompass even the young and the elderly.
Technology is the inner driving force for the progress of information mediums, it also fuels social media. As new technologies such as algorithms, artificial intelligence, and censors get more advanced, social media is also growing smarter by the day.
When the social media revolution began, the world’s social platforms had an idealistic vision of connecting our world. They planned to give everyone free access to information, knowledge, and the resources they needed to experience intellectual freedom, social and economic opportunity, better health, job mobility, and meaningful social connections. These social platforms were going to fight oppression, loneliness, inequality, poverty, and disease. Today, they’ve seemingly exacerbated the very ills they set out to alleviate.
Characteristics of the ‘hype machine’
Today, social media is highly developed. Online social networking, microblogging websites, instant communication software, and the collaborative production of knowledge, as well as news aggregating technology, have fundamentally changed the production, sharing, consumption, use, and price of information. One outstanding characteristic of social media is its technology-driven individuality, which outpaces news agencies and professional institutions, and reflects the voices of the masses. From the mode of knowledge production to the mode of information consumption, from political campaigns to social movements to business operations, social media has exerted a profound and universal influence in all fields of contemporary society.
There are three characteristics which confirm that social media is a “hype machine.” The first is control. As MIT Sloan School of Management professor Sinan Aral put it in his new book, The Hype Machine, the reason why social media has so much control over us is profit. In other words, capital-driven technological innovation leads to the continuous improvement and refinement of social media technology. “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,” wrote Aral.
Second, the spread of false news and its close connection with politics were fully demonstrated during the 2012 and 2016 US presidential elections. In fact, in the practice and research of contemporary news communication, the biggest challenge is the lack of high-quality authentic news. Unlike the era when Lippmann voiced his concerns a century ago, when there was too much information, there were at least professional news organizations producing information, today there are billions of individuals producing news, which highlights their individuality, not professionalism; and stresses their sense of freedom, not responsibility. In the public opinion arena of social media, there are plenty of sensational false news strikes, with plenty of information but little truth.
Third, we are burdened with over-socializing. When a huge amount of information is delivered to our always-on mobile devices through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Weibo and WeChat, the public is swamped in a sea of social information. The public’s use of information, and the improvement of media technology, form a “positive feedback loop.” The more the public uses this technology, the more effective the training and refinement of media technology will be. The more effective the media technology is, the more attractive the information will be, and the public will become more dependent on social media. 
As a result, massive information, driven by algorithm technology, has gradually built a transformative power—social media is hypersocializing our society, scaling mass persuasion, and creating a tyranny of trends.
Inner mechanism
The hype machine has become so powerful under the joint force of digital social networks, machine intelligence, and smartphones. While digital social networks build social information networks that use friend recommendations and algorithms to guide the flow of online information, smartphones create an attention economy reality.
Aral argued that “our ability to harness the wisdom of crowds and collective intelligence rests on three basic pillars: independence, diversity, and equality. The problem is that the Hype Machine erodes all three of these pillars and turns wisdom into madness.” To solve this dilemma, we must delve into social media’s underlying mechanism.  
Studies of the spread of false information show that true information rarely spreads quickly to more than 1,000 people, but the top 1% of fake news can easily reach as many as 100,000 people. True information takes about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as false information takes to reach the same number of people. However, it took 20 times as long to spread the original truthful post to 10 people as it did for the same number of reposts of false news. The spread of false information is significantly wider than that of true information, and false information is much more likely to be forwarded by more independent users.
Powered by smart technology, social bots have become an important driver of fake news. These bots constantly follow influential people, push fake news to them, and when online influencers forward the fake news, this amplifies the news’ effect and makes fake information seem somewhat real. Paradoxically, online influencers and algorithmic social bots play a symbiotic role in the spread of fake news: by inducing humans, social bots share fake news, and humans spread it more widely through “hype machines.” In a certain sense, social media is now an important force driving public opinion, and the role of social media robots cannot be underestimated.
When surfing online, what attracts social media users most are information needs and social relationships. Studies have analyzed the causes of this social dependency. According to a paper published in the journal Cell, damage to the nervous system caused by loneliness has triggered social skills in mice. For a social species, isolation is unpleasant and reduces security. Isolation can reduce the survival rate of rats after a stroke, increase the stress response, and cut down the benefits of exercise. Therefore, the neurological damage caused by loneliness is a compulsive function that can help socialize a species.
Social media is designed specifically for the human brain to interact with the parts of the brain that control the sense of belonging and need for social approval, stimulate the dopamine system, and encourage people to seek out more of this form of reward by connecting, engaging, and sharing with each other online. When we rate items online, our conformity instincts naturally combine with our sensitivity to positive social influence. When we see other people admiring a book, a hotel restaurant, or a doctor, and giving them a high rating, we tend to give them a similar high rating and offer positive comments. Experiments have shown that we are born to conform in our cultural choices.
Value orientation
It is evident that social media technology is growing more adept at deciphering human nature, taking advantage of people’s trust, collecting and developing vast amounts of private data, and improving technology based on that data, which in turn will be used to exploit people’s psychological vulnerabilities and manipulate human consciousness and behavior, without protecting users from potential harm.
When communication becomes technology, and social media becomes a “hype machine,” the consequences are catastrophic. In an environment where information media is bound by technology and commerce, our whole society’s attention is increasingly diluted, and the crowd’s thinking power becomes scarce, so rationality is bounded and order is lost. 
In reality, the attention economy has become synonymous with losing oneself. In the social media environment, people lose their independence, autonomy, and ability to reflect. While social media gives the public the freedom to act, it also grants capital the freedom to control it. Even more alarming is that in the contemporary world, social media companies are private, which can counter the public power of the state, especially the public power of different states. Public governance of private power becomes a prominent problem.
In the social media era, social governance faces new challenges. It is more necessary to observe public opinion’s formation rules and guide the value orientation of public opinion rather than being led by the noise of public opinion. Online opinions cannot be equated with public opinion. In particular, we cannot let the “hype machine” further turn into an “attack weapon.” In the digital world, we should strengthen education and spread rationality. Only by maintaining public opinion’s rationality can we maintain the order of social governance. 
From the perspective of modern information technology’s development, we can see that a new technology, or a new application, always starts with good intentions, trying to solve social ills. However, when people grow attached, new problems will emerge. Realizing a project that “starts from innovation and ends in perfection” has become an eternal topic in the age of science and technology. Therefore, we need to maintain a cautious attitude towards new technologies, rather than becoming fanatical, which will help sustain the healthy progress, use, and innovation of modern digital technology, intelligent technology, and other new technologies.
Hu Yu is a professor from the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University.
Edited by YANG XUE