Facebook’s Trending Issue

By now, everyone’s seen the story: anonymous sources told Gizmodo that Facebook’s news curators suppress “conservative” stories or perspectives; Facebook denied the charges, but then released its 28 pages of editorial guidelines for Trending Topics which revealed that human editors perhaps impact the Trending feature more than people generally realized; Mark Zuckerberg ended up calling a summit for conservative media figures at Facebook headquarters to try and quell the concerns.

My thoughts on this story range from the cynical to contemplative.

First, regarding the accusations of bias, it’s important to recall that accusations and complaint of “liberal media bias” are a mainstay of conservative political narrative. Media bias against their perspectives is one of its core beliefs, and is often part of the way conservative media figures sell themselves to their audience — as the trustworthy alternative to ‘liberal media.’ Given Facebook’s increasing role as a source of news for its hundreds of millions of US users, it’s not totally surprising to see the trope surface regarding Facebook as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not happening, but the accusation is very much consistent with how conservatives tend to view, and talk about, other media platforms. 

I have wondered, as I’ve watched the story play out, if the whole thing isn’t a smart — if cynical — effort to manipulate the Trending section in favor of conservative stories. There’s a sports analogy that kept occurring to me: Like a coach in the NBA, NHL, the World Cup, or MLB who complains about the refereeing in a playoff game after the game ends, those complaints aren’t always about the calls gone wrong or the game that’s already played and over. Instead, the complaint is as much about getting in the heads of the refs and trying to influence calls in the next game. It’s a psychological tactic favored by coaches in many sports, and it will be interesting to see if Trending stories become notably more conservative in the next few weeks or months. If so, it would represent a master stroke in media manipulation. 

To me, the bigger problem for Facebook isn’t necessarily any bias it exhibits or builds in — after all, if political bias was illegal for media companies, both Fox News and MSNBC would be out of business. Rather, the issue is that we’ve all been led to believe, if somewhat naively, that algorithms drive the content in Trending Topics. Facebook hasn’t ever really hidden the fact that human curators play a role, but their role has been at best misunderstood by the public and at worst obscured by the platform. And the output delivered by the combination of algorithm and curator has been portrayed as objective and absent of agenda.

There’s enough mystery as is about Facebook’s News Feed algorithm; brands struggle to grasp the impact and the workings of the many changes the algorithm undergoes every year. If the Trending feature’s algorithm is revealed to be overtly subjective and more affected by human biases than they’ve let on, then businesses (and consumers) may well legitimately further question the output of News Feed, which might lead advertisers to scale back, and lead consumers to trust less the nature of what they’re seeing.

In other words, I think Facebook’s big problem is not a lack of subjectivity in its output, but the fact that for so long they and other tech companies have represented that its software is objective. The reality is that any algorithm reflects its creators’ biases, but that’s not what we’ve been allowed to believe.

If Facebook — and, while we’re at, the other major social networks and sites that now serve as information sources and gatekeepers — are now playing the same role that journalism and publishers have traditionally played, exercising judgment about what readers should see or how news should be presented, then Facebook must be willing to engage in the same candid discussions about transparency and fairness, maybe even about journalistic ethics, that publishers and journalists have had for decades. The issue is less about bias, and more about acknowledging that what you see on Facebook isn’t as objective as

If Facebook doesn’t respond in that spirit, it may not just be conservatives who feel betrayed.

 

 

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