Facebook’s algorithm and “echo chamber” or “filter bubble” or whatever it may have created did not lead to this.
A version of this essay was published on Techdirt.com.
Yeah, okay, I know there are a million and one “hot takes” going on across the media about what happened yesterday and “what went wrong.” I already wrote about what the election means for tech policy and civil liberties, but the trite setup of the blame game is getting really stupid, really fast. I had already started writing up a response to this silly Vox article about how “Facebook is harming our democracy” before the election (the story came out over the weekend), but now that I’m seeing more and more people (especially in the media) blaming Facebook and “algorithms” for the results of the election, I’m turning it into this post: If you’re blaming Facebook for the results of this election, you’re an idiot.
Facebook’s algorithm and whatever “echo chamber” or “filter bubble” or whatever it may have created did not lead to this result. This was the result of a very large group of people who are quite clearly — and reasonably — pissed off at the status quo.
Politics has been a really corrupt game for basically ever, and for the past few decades, lots of people have been trying to pretend it wasn’t as corrupt as it really is. The fact that Trump is likely to be as corrupt — if not more so — than those who came before him didn’t matter. People were upset and voted against a candidate who, to them, basically defined the status quo and the problems with the system. This was a “throw the bums out” vote, and many of the bums deserved to be thrown out. That they voted in someone likely to be worse (especially given who he’s surrounded himself with so far) wasn’t the point. Just as with Brexit, this was a vote of “what we have now ain’t working, let’s try something different.”
It’s no surprise many people argued that Clinton was the wrong candidate to go against Trump. She absolutely was. She was the status quo candidate in a time when lots and lots of people didn’t want the status quo.
But that’s not Facebook’s fault. And the idea that a better or different algorithm on Facebook would have made the results any different is just as ridiculous as the idea that newspaper endorsements or “fact checking” mattered one bit. People are angry because the system has failed them in many, many ways, and it’s not because they’re idiots who believed all the fake news Facebook pushed on them (even if some of them did believe it). Many people don’t think Trump will be any good, but they voted for him anyway, because the status quo is broken.
There is a large slice of voters who told exit pollsters they thought Trump was dishonest, had a bad temperament, etc.–but voted for him.
— Nick Confessore (@nickconfessore) November 9, 2016
The idea that people are just such suckers they believe whatever Facebook puts in front of them is silly. That’s not how it works:
The fundamental problem here is that Facebook’s leadership is in denial about the kind of organization it has become. “We are a tech company, not a media company,” Zuckerberg has said repeatedly over the last few years. In the mind of the Facebook CEO, Facebook is just a “platform,” a neutral conduit for helping users share information with one another.
But that’s wrong. Facebook makes billions of editorial decisions every day. And often they are bad editorial decisions — steering people to sensational, one-sided, or just plain inaccurate stories. The fact that these decisions are being made by algorithms rather than human editors doesn’t make Facebook any less responsible for the harmful effect on its users and the broader society.
Yes, many people are falling for fake or bogus or sensationalized news — and the Trump campaign expertly took a kernel of truth (that many mainstream media sources didn’t want him to win) and spun it into the idea that no media story highlighting his flaws, lies or corruption (no matter how carefully and factually reported) could be believed. But people are believing those stories because they match with their real world experience of seeing how the system has worked (or not worked) for too long.
I’ve already expressed my concerns about what a Trump presidency will do for the issues that I spend my days focused on — and it’s not good. But as loyal readers here at Techdirt should know well, we’ve never been particularly supportive of the way things have been running in the government all along — and that’s through 10 years under Democratic presidencies and eight years under GOP presidencies. The federal government has a long history of doing bad stuff: Stomping on free speech and expanding surveillance (who cares about the First or Fourth Amendments?), pushing policies that will harm innovators in favor of legacy industries (including in both the copyright and patent spaces) and generally disregarding what’s best for the public.
I fear that Trump will make things significantly worse, but I certainly recognize the need to change the status quo overall. And not because of Facebook’s stupid algorithm.