Bad Content vs. Good

So I was reading this interesting article on “The Journalistic Tattletale Industry,” by Glenn Greenwald, recommended by a friend, and came across this quote:

The article itself is about how these people have become censorious hall monitors who go crying to the principal if they think you even breathed a bad word, and Oliver here is one of these whiny hall monitors, demanding that “Big Tech” change its algorithms to stop bad-faith actors.

That said, Oliver here has stumbled onto something interesting: all systems are vulnerable to gaming by unscrupulous actors.

Let’s look at ecosystems, for example. Here you are, a nice, innocent rabbit, eating grass, feeding your bunnies, when bam! a hawk swoops down and just takes advantage of all your hard work and f’ing EATS YOU. If I were a rabbit, I’d be royally pissed for those few seconds before the hawk tears my head off.

Or, from a different perspective, here you are, a good, hard-working hawk, bringing food home to your chicks, when some sneaky bastard parasite infects you and starts eating your food. Here you did all the hard work to catch that food, and now that tapeworm is just lying there, doing nothing and absorbing your nutrients.

Ask anyone who’s ever lived in a “planned society”: actually getting societies to work and be good, pleasant places to live in is difficult. Just look at the issues people had in the Soviet Union, the city of Brasilia, or any cult. Even if everyone starts off with good intentions, (which they often don’t,) things have a habit of going wrong in unexpected ways.

Every society involves planning to some extent–even in very simple societies, some large-scale decisions that affect the whole group have to be made, like “we are going to the watering hole today,” or “we’re going to hunt for game over in that valley instead of this one.” The Soviet Union stands as an example of an extensively planned society, but many ordinary societies struggle with mundane issues like police bribery or the red tape.

One of the big problems with discussing cheaters, parasites, and social defectors is that you have to think about the problem on two levels. On the ground level, ordinary people have to morally disdain cheaters and defectors and parasites and refuse to work with them. They need to view them with disgust and react accordingly, because this makes it much harder for cheaters to operate.

On the planning level, you have to abandon the notion of parasites as free-willed agents who can just be convinced to behave if you just exhort them and ask why the system creates conditions where cheaters and parasites thrive in the first place.

For example, if you make regulations and red-tape so onerous that honest businessmen simply can’t operate in the market, then you get an extensive black market. Here the ultimate solution isn’t “encourage black-market merchants to be better people,” nor “exhort ordinary people to avoid black markets,” (though these are still good things to do,) nor “execute the black-market merchants,” but “take some of the regulatory burden off honest businessmen so they can turn a profit.”

So if you’re concluding that bad content thrives on these platforms (a take I agree with, though I define “bad content” differently than Oliver does,) then you need to ask why this bad content is so popular. No one designed the algorithms with “spread bad content” in mind, after all.

Personally, I’m inclined to think that “bad content” is mostly a side effect of these being systems where you talk/listen to a bunch of strangers. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. The ordinary consequences of lying to or hurting someone in your community are largely non-existent on the internet, or vastly distorted. And the best solution I’ve come up with so far (ironically, since this is a blog,) is for most people to avoid spending a lot of time interacting with strangers on the internet. If you’re addicted to Twitter, just send rude comments to the right people and they’ll do you the service of kicking you off the platform for you. Limit your Facebook to actual, real-life friends and family, if you must. Use the internet to organize real-life events like meetups or hikes or parties for your dog, especially once this stupid pandemic is over, but keep it grounded in the real. Love your families, value your friends, and have some children, for goodness’ sakes.

Modernity selects for those who resist it, after all.