Bad Algorithms Didn’t Break Democracy

Two opposing crowds - Illustration: Sam Whitney; Getty Images

Bad Algorithms Didn’t Break Democracy
WIRED, January 15, 2020
National Affairs
By Gideon Lewis-Kraus

“And better ones won’t save it. To get past misinformation and tribal rancor online, we need to face why people really want misinformation and rancor.”


Over the past five decades, America’s war on drugs has been motivated and organized by the fantasy that the proliferation of substance abuse is fundamentally a supply problem. The remedy, accordingly, has been to restrict the production and distribution of narcotics: Smash the cartels, cauterize the trafficking routes, arrest the dealers. This approach has, predictably enough, devolved into a self-sustaining game of whack-a-mole.


Since 2016, the panic about misinformation online has been driven by a similar fantasy. The arguments predicated on this view have become familiar, almost boilerplate. One recent example was a November speech given by the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.


“Today around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream,” said the actor, in a rare performance in character as himself. “It’s as if the Age of Reason—the era of evidential argument—is ending, and now knowledge is increasingly delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march.” As Baron Cohen put it, it’s “pretty clear” what’s behind these trends: “All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.”


As with the war on drugs, the chief villains in this account are the vectors: the social media companies and their recommendation algorithms, which stoke the viral profusion of preposterous content. The people who originate the memes, like peasants who grow poppies or coca, aren’t painted as blameless, exactly, but their behavior is understood to reflect incentives that have been engineered by others. Facebook and Google and Twitter are the cartels.


And the users? They go about their online business—“not aware,” as technology investor and critic Roger McNamee puts it, “that platforms orchestrate all of this behavior upstream.” Tech’s critics offer various solutions: to break up the platforms entirely, to hold them liable for what users post, or to demand that they screen content for its truth-value.


It’s easy to understand why this narrative is so appealing. The big social media firms enjoy enormous power; their algorithms are inscrutable; they seem to lack a proper understanding of what undergirds the public sphere. Their responses to widespread, serious criticism can be grandiose and smarmy. “I understand the concerns that people have about how tech platforms have centralized power, but I actually believe the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands,” said Mark Zuckerberg, in an October speech at Georgetown University. “I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.”

If these corporations spoke openly about their own financial interest in contagious memes, they would at least seem honest; when they defend themselves in the language of free expression, they leave themselves open to the charge of bad faith.


But the reason these companies—Facebook in particular—talk about free speech is not simply to conceal their economic stake in the reproduction of misinformation; it’s also a polite way for them to suggest that the real culpability for what pullulates on their platforms lies with their users. Facebook has always presented itself, in contrast to legacy gatekeepers, as a neutral bit of infrastructure; people may post what they like and access what they fancy. When Zuckerberg talks about “free expression,” he is describing the sanctity of a market­place where supply is liberated to seek the level of demand. What he is saying, by implication, is that the affliction of partisan propaganda reflects not a problem of supply but of demand—a deep and transparent expression of popular desire.

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About the Author:

Gideon Lewis-Kraus is a contributing editor at WIRED. He last wrote about the blockchain platform Tezos in issue 26.07.

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