A Facebook executive, Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, recently defended Facebook’s policies about political advertising, which critics say rewards politicians who spend a lot of money pushing lies to the slogan-chanting, meme-sharing masses (including the ones in red hats and the ones with the blue hats). Bosworth seems to suggest that for Facebook to tamper with its own money-making algorithm in the service of the truth would be like “Galadrial” [sic] claiming the One Ring for herself. Or something like that.
As a committed liberal I find myself desperately wanting to pull any lever at my disposal to avoid the same result. So what stays my hand?
I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment. Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her. As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.
Bosworth kind of seems to suggest that taking the ring is “using the tools available to change the outcome,” which misses that point that Facebook created its algorithm, just as the Dark Lord created the One Ring. The Ring is wreaking havoc in Middle Earth, just as the Facebook algorithm is wreaking havoc on our democracy. The fellowship doesn’t choose to stand by and let Sauron acquire power. The point of the novel is not a quest to keep a noble and respected ruler from meddling with the vehicle of Sauron’s power and cruelty so that Sauron’s empire can continue to acquire power over all his rivals. It’s a quest to protect Middle Earth by destroying the vessel of Sauron’s power and cruelty.
is Chaim Gartenberg, (The Verge) points out that
to compare Facebook to the power of the One Ring misses the lesson of Tolkien’s tale entirely: that such power, even when wielded by the greatest of people (Galadriel) or with the best intentions (Gandalf), is unfit for anyone to possess at all. If Facebook is the Ring of Power, by Boz’s argument, the best course of action is not to debate how to use it, but to recognize that it possesses too much power entirely and cast it back into the fiery chasm from whence it came. (Or maybe it’s just to crack down more on false political ads so that politicians can’t abuse its power.)