Skip to Content
Meet the author

Solving the social dilemma

Sloan professor Sinan Aral tries to figure out how to keep social media from ruining our world.
December 18, 2020
Hype machine book cover
Penguin Random House

When is the last time you checked Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram? Last night? Before breakfast? Five minutes ago?

If you do have a social-media habit, of course, you are not alone: about 3.5 billion people are active participants. Globally, during a typical day, people post 500 million tweets, share over 10 billion pieces of Facebook content, and watch over a billion hours of YouTube video. Since our brains are wired to process social information, it’s hardly surprising this technology has grown so popular so fast. But as most people are also aware, it has a dark side.

“Social media disrupts our elections, our economy, and our health,” says Sloan professor Sinan Aral. In The Hype Machine (Penguin Random House, 2020, $28), Aral details why social-media platforms have become so successful yet so problematic.

“This machine exists in every facet of our lives,” Aral says. “What do we do? How do we achieve the promise of this machine and avoid the peril? We’re at a crossroads.”

Aral, who has been studying social networking for 20 years, was part of the team behind a 2018 study showing that false news stories shared on Twitter were 70% more likely to be retweeted than true ones. Why? Most likely because false news has greater novelty value and provokes stronger reactions—especially disgust and surprise.

Recent books from the MIT Community

  • Make It Clear: Speak and Write to Persuade and Inform

    By the late Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70, former director of the MIT AI Lab and later the Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science, with a foreword by Gill Pratt ’83, SM ’87, PhD ’90

    MIT Press, 2020, $34.95

  • Geospatial Intelligence: Origins and Evolution

    By Robert M. Clark ’59

    Georgetown University Press, 2020, $149.95

  • Scientific Journeys: A Physicist Explores the Culture, History, and Personalities of Science 

    By H. Frederick Dylla ’70, SM ’71, PhD ’75

    Springer, 2020, $27.99

  • The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You

    By Mark A. Herschberg ’95, MEng ’97, ’05, a founding member of UPOP

    Cognosco Media, 2021, $28.95

  • Local Estimation from the Ground Up

    By Sivan Toledo, PhD ’95

    Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, 2020, $67

  • Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women

    By Kate Manne, PhD ’11 

    Crown, 2020, $27

  • Apollo Memories

    By W. David Carrier ’65, SM ’66, ScD ’69; foreword by Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt 

    CG Publishing/Apogee Books, 2020, $26.95

And such responses are precisely what bring in audiences and revenue. “The business models that run the social-media industrial complex have a lot to do with the outcomes we’re seeing,” Aral says. “It’s an attention economy, and businesses want you engaged. How do they get engagement? Well, they give you little dopamine hits, and … get you riled up.”

The political implications are sobering. During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Russia spread false information to at least 126 million people on Facebook and another 20 million on Instagram. “I think we need to be a lot more vigilant than we are,” says Aral.

To that end, he favors automated and user-generated labeling of false news, and measures to minimize the ad revenue that content creators can collect from misinformation. He believes federal privacy measures are potentially useful and calls for data portability and interoperability, so consumers “could freely switch from one network to another.” He does not endorse breaking up Facebook, suggesting instead that the social-media economy needs structural reform.

But without change, he adds, Facebook and the others risk civic backlash. “If you get me angry and riled up, I might click more in the short term, but I might also grow really tired and annoyed by how this is making my life miserable, and I might turn you off entirely,” he says. But bad outcomes are not inevitable—for the companies or for society.

“Technology is what we make it,” he says, “and we are abdicating our responsibility to steer technology toward good and away from bad. That is the path I try to illuminate in this book.”

Send book news to or
MIT News, 1 Main Street, 13th Floor
Cambridge, MA 02142

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.