Jun 13, 2022Liked by Berny Belvedere

What strikes me, Bernie, is that you're focusing on that one entry in Matt's article, when the entries below it flesh out the thesis a bit more, in ways that I think challenge your argument. Iglesias isn't just saying that algorithms induce an inegalitarian quality in our public discourse (which, as you correctly point out, has always existed in some form or another). His claim is that it creates a distinct bias in favor of disinformation.

One could perhaps argue that this, as well, was true before social media algorithms. After all, we've always had tabloids and sensationalist news publications. It's hard to say just how more or less well informed people are on average these days than before social media, but it isn't hard to imagine that we had similar problems with disinformation in the days when the gatekeepers of our journalistic institutions were more subject to manipulation by wealthy media tycoons.

However, my guess is that while we probably fare somewhat better at being well-informed on average, the variance among us has grown to dangerous proportions, with some of us knowing more about the world than would have been feasible thirty years ago, and others of us effectively knowing less than nothing, having been lured down rabbit holes of conspiracy theories so absurd and into information bubbles so friendly to our own biases that simple, old-fashioned, corn-fed ignorance would be a massive upgrade in awareness. This has led to levels of polarization in our country arguably not seen since the Civil War era. And one can make a very convincing (really, almost impenetrable) case that social media engagement algorithms are the principal culprit. Social media itself had already largely removed the barriers of time and space that once acted as wetland buffers against the wildfire of mob hysteria in our public discourse. Social media algorithms have acted like an accelerant of an already difficult dynamic, much like dousing the dry foliage in kerosene and lighting a match.

So it's not really that social media algorithms foster unfair amplification of speech. It's that they foster both unnatural and seemingly toxic amplifications of speech, at levels which the human brain is arguably ill-equipped to properly manage, and which weaponize against us the very social proclivities that have, for millenia, formed the unstable yet persistent foundation of human civilization. To draw a parallel with another newly controversial Constitutional right, social media algorithms are to the First Amendment what AR-15s are to the Second Amendment - an artifact of modernity which threatens to render as hopelessly naive our existing conceptions regarding the fundamental good those rights embody in the first place.

Which is a scary place to be. We should be just as concerned about repairing a broken culture of free speech as we are about healing an unhealthy gun culture. Social media algorithms, the invisible neural agent unleashed on an unsuspecting population, are a great place to start.

Expand full comment

Excellent comment.

Expand full comment

Oh ... thank you! 😊

Expand full comment


Expand full comment