Facebook executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth published a memo that looks ahead to the 2020 election. In it, he discussed how Facebook’s marketing tools were used by the Trump campaign to win the 2016 election and how Facebook shouldn’t take action to prevent Trump from using the same strategy to win again, via The New York Times.
As part of his argument, Boz makes the comparison by citing none other than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to explain his decision. Facebook, Boz argues, is akin to Sauron’s One Ring, and wielding its power — even with noble intent — would only lead to ruin.
As a committed liberal I find myself desperately wanting to pull any lever at my disposal to avoid the same result. So what stays my hand?
I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment. Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her. As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.
As The New York Times points out, Boz misspells the name of the character Galadriel as “Galadrial,” but there are graver errors here. Namely, Boz is citing the wrong part of The Lord of the Rings entirely.
In Tolkien’s books and the film adaptations, Galadriel is concerned about the power of the Ring corrupting her — as it does all, save the Dark Lord himself. But not once does she contemplate using its power for good. “In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night!.. All shall love me and despair!” Tolkien writes.
But in Galadriel’s eyes, the One Ring is a pathway to personal power, and it’s that power that would corrupt her. As Galadriel concludes, turning down the Ring, “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”
The analogy Boz was likely looking to make happens earlier in the novel and film when Frodo is first entrusted with the Ring and seeks to give it away to Gandalf who he views as wiser and better-equipped to handle it. Gandalf refuses, arguing that his “pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good” is what would corrupt him eventually and lead him to become “like the Dark Lord himself.”
But to compare Facebook to the power of the One Ring misses the lesson of Tolkien’s tale entirely: that such power, even when wielded by the greatest of people (Galadriel) or with the best intentions (Gandalf), is unfit for anyone to possess at all. If Facebook is the Ring of Power, by Boz’s argument, the best course of action is not to debate how to use it, but to recognize that it possesses too much power entirely and cast it back into the fiery chasm from whence it came. (Or maybe it’s just to crack down more on false political ads so that politicians can’t abuse its power.)
This is nothing new, of course. Silicon Valley has a long history of misusing Lord of the Rings analogies. First, there’s Palantir Technologies, which borrows from the name of Tolkien’s palantíri, which allowed communication around the world. There’s also Anduril Industries, a defense company ostensibly named after Aragorn’s sword (“the Flame of the West”), and its mission would seem to willfully ignore Tolkien’s general themes of “war and power are bad.”
None of this is particularly important when compared to the larger scope of the issues at hand. But if you’re going to publicly consider using the most powerful communication system in the history of mankind to influence an election, at the very least, you’ve got to get the basic lore right.