Funny that this should come up now. Or, frankly, at all. A handful of billionaires have always had “influence” — actual control — over “online platforms.” Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) puts in his bid for the Judge Elihu Smails Award anyway with his demand for “algorithmic justice” … whatever that is:
Elon Musk and a handful of billionaires now have dangerous influence over the most powerful online platforms. They can't be trusted, and self-regulation has failed. We must pass laws to protect privacy and promote algorithmic justice for internet users, especially for kids.
— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) April 26, 2022
The current ratio on this is roughly 3:1 as of 5:30 pm ET. By the time this post publishes and people have had more head-scratching time, I suspect it might be wider than that. You might as well argue for “edit button justice.” Besides, this is a strange complaint to make when Musk appears to be the only tech titan that has promised to make those algorithms more transparent when he has the authority to make those changes:
“Twitter has become kind of the de-facto town square,” he said. “It’s just really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they’re able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
In terms of specific changes, Musk said Twitter should open-source its algorithms and minimize the interventions it takes in policing content. “Any changes to people’s tweets — if they’re emphasized or de-emphasized — that action should be made apparent,” he said. “So anyone can see that that action has been taken so there’s no sort of behind-the-scenes manipulation, either algorithmically or manually.”
He added that the underlying code behind the algorithm should be available on GitHub, so that users could inspect it themselves.
If “algorithmic justice” truly weighs on Markey’s mind, then he should be cheering Musk’s buyout of Twitter. Markey certainly wasn’t producing any “algorithmic justice” with his griping on Twitter, not on that platform or anyone else’s. Assuming Musk follows through on his pledge — which, to be fair, is a big assumption — Musk will have done more for “algorithmic justice” than anyone in Big Tech.
But of course, transparency isn’t Markey’s idea of “algorithmic justice.” He wants algorithmic control of content and viewpoints, preferably by bureaucrats, but at least by people allied to the correct politicians. Markey was well on his way to achieving that at Twitter, if not already there, when Musk bought the company. Washington DC has cajoled and threatened Facebook, Google, and Twitter with regulation if they didn’t comply with the governing clique’s preferences on viewpoint and expression, an effort that had become disturbingly successful. If Musk won’t play ball, then Markey wants government to control it overtly.
In other words, this isn’t really about “algorithms” at all, except as a cover for shenanigans, as Musk hinted. A Twitter user noted this as well in a reply to Markey’s tweet:
I weirdly have studied data privacy a bit and while I'm pretty strongly in the we need some regulations directly addressing it camp, I think a lot of people overstate the importance of it (general PII gets useless pretty quick). But calling it algorithmic justice? I'm out.
— Cactus Law Practitioner (@rtlcactus) April 26, 2022
Read what Musk said carefully. He doesn’t think it’s the algorithms either. Musk suspects that Twitter employees are intervening in support of their own biases and that of their bosses, and that they blame “algorithm” issues when the results are too absurd to ignore. That’s why Musk wants to make them open-source and transparent, so that any changes not made by algorithms would become instantly apparent.
That might indeed be “algorithmic justice,” if Musk follows through. Will he? One frequent Twitter commenter may have the best advice of all:
I think Ben Shapiro also demanding algorithmic justice today. (And tribunals, ofc.)
Maybe everyone needs to just chill and see what even happens.
— Verbaluce (@verbaluce) April 26, 2022
While passing the popcorn in the meantime, of course.