A useful, data-rich analysis of how we use social media—and how it uses us.



The head of MIT’s Social Analytics lab warns that Facebook and other social media titans are controlling our behavior—and that breaking up the behemoths won’t solve the problem.

In 2018, Aral and two colleagues made headlines when they published a study that found that lies travel faster than truth online. Such attention-grabbing facts abound in this survey of what the author calls “the Hype Machine,” or “the real-time communications ecosystem created by social media,” and how it is changing behavior. As the author shows how social networks use “psychological, economic, and technical hooks” to lock in and manipulate people, he makes some points covered in books such as Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. Aral also includes a fair amount of material that will hold interest mainly for marketers or other professional persuaders—e.g., “Digital ads don’t work nearly as well as they’re advertised.” The author shines, however, when he validates or challenges many popular beliefs about social media. Anyone who fears that Russia might use Facebook to disrupt the 2020 presidential election, he suggests, is right to do so—but they should also worry about China and Iran. Anyone who cheered Twitter’s decision to label fake-news tweets should consider two facts: Such labels can also cause readers to distrust true news and create an “implied truth effect” that leads readers to believe that anything not labeled false is true. For all this, Aral argues that leviathans like Facebook don’t need to be broken up but could be reined in by laws that, for example, would increase data portability and allow people to take data shared online to other networks just as they can take their phone numbers to new carriers. Ardent trust-busters may disagree, but Aral’s arguments are clear and stimulating, and as the presidential election nears, the book could hardly be timelier.

A useful, data-rich analysis of how we use social media—and how it uses us.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-57451-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Currency

Review Posted Online: June 25, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2020

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...


A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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