This week Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech wherein he extolled “giving everyone a voice” and preventing “to uphold a wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible.” That sounds nice, in fact! Freedom of expression is a cornerstone, if not the cornerstone, of liberal democracy. Who could possibly be against that?
The drawback is that Facebook doesn’t supply free speech; it gives free amplification. No one would a lot care about something you posted to Facebook, irrespective of how false or hateful, if individuals needed to navigate to your specific web page to learn your rantings, as within the very early days of the location.
But what individuals truly learn on Facebook is what’s of their News Feed … and its contents, in flip, are decided not by giving everybody an equal voice, and never by a strict chronological timeline. What you learn on Facebook is set fully by Facebook’s algorithm, which elides a lot — censors a lot, for those who wrongly assume the News Feed is free speech — and amplifies little.
What is amplified? Two types of content material. For native content material, the algorithm optimizes for engagement. This in flip means individuals spend extra time on Facebook, and due to this fact extra time within the firm of that different type of content material which is amplified: paid promoting.
Of course this isn’t absolute. As Zuckerberg notes in his speech, Facebook works to cease issues like hoaxes and medical misinformation from going viral, even when they’re in any other case anointed by the algorithm. But he has particularly determined that Facebook is not going to try and cease paid political misinformation from going viral.
I personally disagree with this choice, however I assume it’s one thing about which affordable individuals can disagree. However I discover it deeply disingenuous to say that that is by some means about defending free speech. If somebody have been to attempt to place a blatantly false political advert on any platform or community, would anybody critically contemplate a choice to not run that advert an assault on free speech? Of course not. And they shouldn’t take the converse argument critically both.
The bigger concern, although, is that Facebook appears to assume that if an algorithm is content-agnostic, it’s due to this fact honest. When Zuckerberg talks about giving individuals a voice, he actually means giving these individuals chosen by Facebook’s algorithm a voice. When he says “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate,” what he truly means is that Facebook’s algorithm is itself that Fifth Estate.
The perception is outwardly that any human judgement based mostly on content material past absolutely the minimal required by regulation and implied by the social contract — i.e. filtering out hate speech, abuses, or harmful medical misinformation, all of which he stresses in his speech — is harmful and mistaken, and that this goes for each native content material and paid promoting. According to this perception, Facebook’s algorithm, as long as it’s content-agnostic, is definitionally honest.
And that perception is simply flat-out mistaken. As we’ve all seen, “optimizing for engagement” all too usually means optimizing for outrage, for polarization, for disingenuous misinformation. True, it doesn’t imply favoring any aspect of any given concern; nevertheless it does imply favoring the extremes, the conspiracy theorists, the histrionic diatribes on all sides. It means fomenting distrust, suspicion, and battle in all places. We’ve all seen it. We’ve all lived it.
Facebook’s choice to simply accept political advertisements no matter content material is actually a logical extension of how their algorithm optimizes for engagement. It speaks to their perception that so long as they don’t cross judgement based mostly on content material, their ongoing, ceaseless enhancing of what individuals see and don’t see — and please name it censorship for those who assume that is any means about freedom of speech — is due to this fact honest and simply. This perception was defensible ten and even 5 years in the past. It shouldn’t be defensible at this time.
But it’s also not going to vary. Facebook’s unique sin shouldn’t be political advertisements; it’s optimizing for engagement in order that their customers see extra advertisements of every kind. That’s what wants to vary for Facebook to grow to be a optimistic drive on the planet … and it’s additionally what by no means will, as a result of that engagement is the basic engine of their enterprise mannequin.