But Who Should Control the Algorithm, Nick Clegg? Not Facebook …Us!
Facebook’s latest attempt to justify their stance on disinformation and other harms, and their plans to make minor improvements, actually points the reason those improvements are not nearly enough — and can never be. They need to make far more radical moves to free our feeds, as I have proposed previously.
Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, put out an article yesterday that provides a telling counterpoint to those proposals. You and the Algorithm: It Takes Two to Tango defends Facebook in most respects, but accepts the view that users need more transparency and control:
You should be able to better understand how the ranking algorithms work and why they make particular decisions, and you should have more control over the content that is shown to you. You should be able to talk back to the algorithm and consciously adjust or ignore the predictions it makes — to alter your personal algorithm…
He goes on to describe laudable changes Facebook has just made, with further moves in that direction intended.
But the question is: how this can be more than Band-Aids covering the deeper problem? Seeking to put the onus on us — “We need to look at ourselves in the mirror…” — he goes on (emphasis added):
…These are profound questions — and ones that shouldn’t be left to technology companies to answer on their own…Promoting individual agency is the easy bit. Identifying content which is harmful and keeping it off the internet is challenging, but doable. But agreeing on what constitutes the collective good is very hard indeed.
Exactly the point of these proposals! No private company can be permitted to attempt that, even under the most careful regulation — especially in a democracy. That is especially true for a dominant social media service. Further, slow-moving regulation cannot be effective in an age of dynamic change. We need a free market in filters from a diversity of providers — for users to choose from. Twitter seems to understand that; it seems clear that Facebook does not.
Don’t try to tango with a dancing bear
As I explain in my proposal:
Social media oligarchs have seduced us — giving us bicycles for the mind that they have spent years and billions engineering to “engage” our attention. The problem is that they insist on steering those bicycles for us, because they get rich selling advertising that they precisely target to us. Democracy and common sense require that we, the people, keep control of our marketplace of ideas. It is time to wrestle back the steering of our bicycles, so that we can guide our attention where we want. Here is why, and how. Hint: it will probably require regulation, but not in the ways currently being pursued.
What I and others have proposed — and that Jack Dorsey of Twitter has advocated — is to spin out the filtering of our newsfeeds (and other recommendations of content, users, and groups) to a multitude of new “middleware” services that work with the platforms, but that users can choose from in an open market, and mix and match as they like.
“Agreeing on what constitutes the collective good” has always been best done by the collective human effort of an open market of ideas. Algorithms can aid humans in doing that, but we, the people, must decide which algorithms, with what parameters and what objective functions. These open filtering proposals explain how and why. What Clegg suggest is good advice as far as it goes, but, ultimately, too much like trying to tango with a dancing bear.