Since a whistleblower went public with details about how Facebook chose to ignore various findings about the deleterious effects of its websites, various criticisms of the social-media pioneer have been in the news. In particular, Facebook’s detractors argue that its algorithms tend to show users misleading and inaccurate information, as well as messages that harm children’s self-esteem. Francis Nataf suggests that Facebook might not really be the problem:
The cries for more responsibility are all aimed at government or industry. Yet as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (whose first yahrzeit we are now marking) repeatedly pointed out, in a liberal state, these institutions are not primarily designed to promote morality or to enforce it. Of course, they have a role to play: industry should understand that the legitimate desire for profits does not make everything legitimate; and government needs to support whatever basic moral consensus still exists. But as Sacks wrote in his last major book, aptly titled Morality, morality’s home is primarily in the third sector—voluntary communities that are formed around tighter and more rigorous definitions of what we should be doing to maximize who we are as human beings.
Drawing on a verse from Proverbs, and a rabbinic commentary thereon, Nataf adds that algorithms
don’t make up anything on their own. Their output—like the reflection of our face in the water—is completely responsive to our input. In this respect, then, the blame society is aiming at social-media algorithms is like throwing a rock at the water reflecting the ugliness of our own face.
For if we are allowing ourselves to wallow in partisan hate and never looking at the other side, it means that on some level this is what we prefer. If we are willing to read things of questionable reliability, it means that this is what we want. If we let ourselves be drawn to the bizarre, the silly, and the sexually enticing, this too is what we are ultimately choosing. As in real life, knowing that any of these practices is not optimal is not the same as deciding to live otherwise. No doubt, others, including Mark Zuckerberg, have a part in the blame. But what about ourselves?