Opinion

Facebook's amoral algorithms

Disinformation, outrage, and polarization keep the clicks coming

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

In the chaotic days after the 2020 election, Facebook employees warned CEO Mark Zuckerberg that the platform was being used to promote bogus claims of massive election fraud. With then-President Trump whipping up fury over a "rigged" election, Zuckerberg ordered that Facebook give new weight to existing "news ecosystem quality" scores, so that mainstream sources like major newspapers had priority in newsfeeds over extremist websites such as Breitbart. But the platform soon reverted to its old algorithm, spewing out election disinformation like a sewage spill. As former Facebook employee Frances Haugen told the world this week, the tech behemoth knows that outrage, anger, and conspiracy theories — what it internally calls "bad for the world" content — generate more emotion, engagement, and dopamine hits. "If they change the algorithm to be safer," Haugen said, "people will spend less time on the site, they'll click on less ads, they'll make less money."

This simple, amoral calculation explains why Facebook has enabled QAnon to infect millions, white supremacists to glorify mass shootings, and Burmese to massacre the Rohingya. Through Facebook, anti-vaxxers have spread lies that have caused hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. Teenage girls use Facebook and its Instagram app to swap tips on cutting and starving themselves. Zuckerberg invariably expresses dismay when these horrors come to light, but his fixes have been limited and temporary. Facebook has made him the global emperor of a supranational realm of 3 billion users; shutting off the "bad for the world" firehose would diminish his creation's audience and influence. He's incapable of self-regulating, just as Purdue wouldn't stop pushing opioids and Big Tobacco wouldn't stop selling cigarettes. Regulating social media to minimize divisive and dangerous disinformation will be fiendishly difficult. But if we wait for Facebook to fix itself, we'll keep waiting.

More From...

Picture of William FalkWilliam Falk
Read All
Patrick Henry in China
Protesters.
Talking Points

Patrick Henry in China

Falling from the sky
Sam Bankman-Fried.
Talking Points

Falling from the sky

It will get worse
A view of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's house following an attack on her husband.
Talking Points

It will get worse

No, it's not over
A nurse.
Talking Points

No, it's not over

Recommended

White House says there are currently no plans for Biden to talk to Putin
President Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2021.
At An Impasse

White House says there are currently no plans for Biden to talk to Putin

Macron tells Elon Musk that Twitter must follow rules of E.U.
French President Emmanuel Macron meets with Twitter CEO Elon Musk.
Emmanuel and Elon

Macron tells Elon Musk that Twitter must follow rules of E.U.

Patrick Henry in China
Protesters.
Picture of William FalkWilliam Falk

Patrick Henry in China

Troubled union: Apple's China problem
An Apple protest.
Feature

Troubled union: Apple's China problem

Most Popular

Once-a-decade critics' poll names greatest film ever
Movie theater
we come to this place for magic

Once-a-decade critics' poll names greatest film ever

Green Book actor's body dumped in the Bronx
Frank Vallelonga
R.I.P.

Green Book actor's body dumped in the Bronx

Musk suspends Ye's Twitter account after swastika post
Kanye West and Twitter
Nothing is free

Musk suspends Ye's Twitter account after swastika post