The Internet’s Problems Can’t Be Solved with an Algorithm

We can’t keep blaming human behavior on the robots

Rob Howard


Photo: Rawpixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus

When in doubt, blame the robots. As Facebook has fallen from grace and struggled to reconcile its role in spreading propaganda and stoking political anger, the company has proposed a familiar solution:

If the algorithm has failed, let’s just build a better algorithm.

It’s a noble goal for the next hackathon. As a mechanism for real change, however, the focus on software misses the point.

Facebook’s problems can’t be solved with more data or better code. They’re simply the most potent and alarming example of the fact that the internet has failed as a public forum.

Not long ago, the scientists and software developers who pioneered the World Wide Web thought it would democratize publishing and usher in a more open, educated, and thoughtful chapter of history. But while the internet and its offshoot technologies have improved society and daily life in many ways, they have been an unmitigated disaster for the way people communicate and learn.

It feels good to blame Facebook, but the crisis is evident in every nook and cranny of the web. The internet is crawling with normal, everyday humans who transform into vicious, nihilistic psychopaths the moment they’re granted even a thin veil of anonymity in a comment thread. This was the nature of online communication in 1995, when astronomer and early-adopter Clifford Stoll lamented in Newsweek:

The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.

His words still ring true 23 years later.

Despite Facebook’s efforts to make its platform less anonymous than its predecessors, it is painfully clear that people seem to have no problem piling on the hate when tapping away on a keyboard or phone, comfortably distant from the consequences of their words for the real person reading them many fiber-optic cables away. Facebook, along with most of its social media counterparts, operates in part based on the Silicon Valley hypothesis that if all ideas are distributed freely, the most valuable ones will rise to the…