Dozens of articles are trying to blame the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States on Facebook’s news feed algorithm, and especially its supposed propensity for factually untrue news stories. The liberal/left-wing The Intercept just posted an article Facebook, I’m Begging You, Please Make Yourself Better by Sam Biddle promoting this theory. Similar articles have shown up in the LA Times , New York Magazine, and many other sources.
The premise of these articles is that Facebook created a filter or bubble around dumb, poorly educated, right wing pro-Trump voters bombarding them with factually incorrect news stories and conspiracy theories that convinced these idiots to vote for Trump instead of the saintly, flawless Hillary Clinton. I am being intentionally sarcastic here to make a point.
Less sarcastically, the premise is that the news feed algorithms select articles that the Facebook users want to read, confirming either conservative or liberal biases depending on the user and failing to check for factual accuracy and also assuming the Facebook users don’t fact check the articles Facebook pushes at them in this era of Google and other search engines.
There is also an assumption here that Donald Trump will be a terrible President. We don’t actually know that but it is a widespread concern that I share.
Did Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm Elect Donald Trump?
This is probably the first Presidential Election in history where the outcome is being blamed on algorithms, in particular the news feed selection algorithms of Facebook.
Speaking for myself I was bombarded by Facebook news articles highly supportive of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats and clearly whitewashing the scandals that were inflicting serious damage on her campaign. From my own experience, I saw no evidence of the Facebook filter/bubble theory — more the Facebook likes Hillary and the Democrats theory.
The idea that conservative, right-wing Americans trust Facebook, a company with close visible ties to the Obama administration, and its news feed should seem laughable in the extreme. Facebook, of course, advocates for immigration policies denounced by Donald Trump as well.
Hillary Clinton was severely damaged by factually correct or largely factually correct news articles in The Intercept (yes) in articles such as “Why Did the Saudi Regime and Other Gulf Tyrannies Donate Millions to the Clinton Foundation”, The New York Times in articles such as “Cash Flowed to the Clinton Foundation Amidst Russian Uranium Deal”, and many other non-Facebook news and media sources documenting conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation, her husband former President Bill Clinton, and the former Senator and US Secretary of State herself.
These troubling conflicts of interest and many questions about them were documented in right wing activist Peter Schweizer’s book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich available on Amazon (not Facebook). They were also discussed in Schweizer’s video Clinton Cash available on YouTube (not Facebook).
The problem with these stories is not that they were false. They are largely true — factually correct. The Russian uranium deal which gave the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom and by extension the Russian government of Vladimir Putin control of many uranium mines throughout the world and even in the United States is particularly troubling. Uranium is the most powerful explosive in the world and the basis of the huge arsenals of nuclear weapons possessed by both the United States and Russia. Uranium-238, the main isotope of uranium, can be converted easily in a breeder reactor to Plutonium-239, the highly explosive and highly toxic isotope of Plutonium that forms the core of most nuclear weapons. At best, this was poor judgment on the part of the Clintons. At worst, it raises the possibility that the Clintons have been compromised by Russian intelligence.
For what it is worth given that polls have proven unreliable in this election, polls consistently showed record disapproval ratings for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump among voters. I certainly know many people who were appalled at the choice, wanting neither candidate.
Voting for the Lesser Evil
Millions of Americans were forced to choose between an erratic businessman with no government experience and murky business connections on the one hand and a former Secretary of State who appeared to have been selling her official services to the highest bidder, even including the most formidable and heavily armed potential adversary of the United States, that is Russia with its vast nuclear arsenal.
In saying this, I am not advocating a return to the Cold War nor mindless confrontation with Russia, the other major nuclear power in the world. But helping Russia gain control of sizable reserves of uranium, the most powerful explosive in the world, was not wise.
Many Americans have voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump with great reserve and concerns about the candidate that they voted for. Not because they are racists or dumb or poorly educated. Not because they are closet socialists or naive idealistic internationalists. They had to choose between two lousy candidates. That is the reality that should be fixed.
The only other choice was to vote for fringe third party candidates such as the Libertarians or the Green Party, knowing that they would not win and that such a vote would be equivalent to voting for whichever candidate, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, wins in the voter’s state.
Algorithms or Human Judgment?
In recent years with the proliferation of extremely powerful computers and high bandwidth networks, algorithms have become the scapegoat for decisions by people, not infrequently powerful people who want to avoid accountability. People make decisions, not algorithms. People choose and design the algorithms. People choose and design the mathematical models. Until we have true Artificial Intelligence (AI), if it ever comes, that will be true.
The problem here is not with Facebook’s algorithms or anybody else’s algorithms. It is with a political and economic system that is putting forward such dubious candidates for the highest office in the United States.
© 2016 John F. McGowan
About the Author
John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at email@example.com.