Sep 13, 2016 ยท 4 minutes

Late last week, those of us who care about such things -- journalists, historians, non-sociopaths, the Prime Minister of Norway  -- were outraged when Facebook censored the famous Napalm Girl war photograph on the basis it might be considered child pornography.

It took the company almost two days to reverse the ban, and pledge to censor fewer historic images in future.

Behind the scenes, Facebook was working hard to convince journalists that the solution wasn’t as simple as “hire some goddamned editors.” Determining newsworthiness is hard! people at the company insisted. It would require a unfathomably intelligent algorithm to do the work of someone like the New York Times’ public editor -- and we can’t simply hire humans to do the job as Facebook has an almost incomprehensibly large number of daily posts. It’s not that Mark Zuckerberg wants to censor journalism, it’s that his company simply doesn’t know how to block child porn without inadvertently deleting images like Napalm Girl.

Uh huh.

To understand why that’s bullshit, you only have to look as far as “Breakthrough Listen,” a gigantic and insanely ambitious project to scan distant galaxies for signs of intelligent life. The major funder of Breakthrough Listen is Yuri Milner who has pledged $100m of his own cash. But the project was launched in partnership with the Breakthrough Prize, a charitable foundation set up to solve big problems in physics, life sciences and math. One of Breakthrough’s other major backers is… Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm for Breakthrough Listen provides a small insight into how Silicon Valley billionaires see big challenges. If you or I find ourselves wondering if we’re alone in the universe, we might reach for a book, or stare wistfully up at the stars. When someone like Yuri Milner or Mark Zuckerberg wonders the same, he pledges hundred of millions dollars of his own cash to search every last star until he finds signs of life. When Elon Musk wants to go to Mars, he doesn’t bitch about how far away it is, he builds a goddamned rocket and goes the fuck to Mars. Less nobly, when Peter Thiel decides he wants to destroy a media organization, he sends a blank check to a lawyer and pretty soon a whole bunch of reporters are looking for new jobs.

This is how they roll.

Zuckerberg in particular loves to boast of his determination in overcoming challenges. Every year he sets himself a task: Learn Mandarin, build a fully automated household AI, only eating meat he has slaughtered with his own hands - and every year, sure enough, he succeeds in accomplishing it. Facebook itself is a constant gigantic challenge -- scaling its infrastructure to support more than a billion users and counting; deciding which companies to acquire (and which to copy) in order to keep its share price ticking upwards (cf Twitter); even putting satellites into orbit to create entirely new internet users to get hooked on Facebook.

If Zuckerberg and Facebook really wanted to figure out how not to accidentally censor the news, or really cared how many of its trending headlines linked to fake news stories or seemed to be favor one political party or another, they would have already hired the very best reporters and editors from all of the biggest news organizations on the planet to fix their news product. Those new hires would have been given a blank check, and access to the smartest engineers Facebook has on staff, to create the ultimate artificially intelligent editor. Facebook’s news product would be the envy of the word. The damn robot would probably win a Pulitzer.

Instead, we’ve seen Facebook delegate its news division to freelancers, then lay off those same freelancers before bleating that news is just too damned hard. It’s patent bullshit, and reminds me of Secret’s insistence that solving teen bullying was too hard, or Twitter’s whining that’s it’s weally weally twying to ban trolls but the rest of us just don’t get how complicated the problem is.

We do get it. Editing, bullying and trolls are very hard problems to tackle, and they cost a lot of money. But what they’re not is problems on the scale of finding aliens or getting to Mars or even giving everyone on the planet access to the Internet. In other words, if Zuckerberg et al wanted to fix them, they could.  

The lesson is clear: When you hear someone in Silicon Valley who’s as smart and rich as Mark Zuckerberg (or the people who work for those people) saying that a problem is too difficult for Facebook to solve, they’re not telling you the truth. In the case of its news product, that might be because they just don’t give a shit, or it might be that they’re worried that driving away fake news articles or allowing challenging images to be posted will scare away more users than they’ll attract. Whatever the reason, they’ve made a choice not to solve this problem.