Facebook, Censorship, and the Public Trust

Facebook censorship

The issue

Early yesterday morning Gizmodo reported that those employed to help curate Facebook’s “trending news” items (which appear on the right of users’ feeds) were told to suppress trending topics from conservative sites, as well as news about Facebook itself.

On the one hand, the Trending News feature, introduced in 2014, was designed to help Facebook compete with Twitter, which has long dominated the “breaking news” space.

“We would get yelled at if it was all over Twitter and not on Facebook,” one former curator said.

And yet, the news hook here is allegations that Facebook exhibited bias by deliberately omitting trending conservative news topics including:

  • former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups;
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; stories originating from the Drudge Report; and
  • Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL & subject of American Sniper who was murdered in 2013.

Even when trending conservative topics were considered for inclusion, curators were encouraged to link to the topic from a more mainstream media outlet, such as The New York Times, BBC or CNN – thus robbing conservative sites of earned traffic and eyeballs.

My take

On the one hand, this shouldn’t matter.

As the Gizmodo article puts it, “In other words, Facebook’s news section operates like a traditional newsroom, reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation.”

Well, duh.

But the revelation that human curators actively censored certain otherwise-trending topics runs counter to Facebook’s prior claims that the trending topics were selected more purely from “topics that have recently become popular on Facebook.”

In other words, the perception was that the process was more pure, with stories automatically chosen via a popularity algorithm.

But there’s a bigger issue at play here.

The New York Times reported last week that the average Facebook user spends 50 minutes per day on the platform (i.e., Facebook, Instagram, and/or Messenger).

The average person also sleeps 8.8 hours per day. Which means that “more than one-sixteenth of the average user’s waking time is spent on Facebook.”

Facebook has now become such a dominant force, such an integral part of its 1.65 billion active users’ lives, that it has become the major, if not sole, news source for many.

As such, it has tremendous power to shape public perception of events.

Toward media aggregation?

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The dominant narrative among public relations professionals for the past decade is that it’s become harder to reach, let alone influence, public opinion because of media fragmentation.

Whereas 30 years ago it was fairly easy to run a campaign by buying time on the three major television networks or print ads in one of the dominant national/local newspapers, today the explosion of both satellite television channels and websites means people are getting their news from exponentially more sources.

In a world where upstarts like The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed are now mentioned in the same breath as traditional outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post, this makes sense.

But what if that dominant narrative is wrong, and the number of consistent news sources is far smaller than we all think?

I’m thinking of Facebook’s trending news and Google News, specifically.

Even as a media professional I default to reading my daily news via Google News rather than CNN or The Washington Post.

If Google News, in particular, opts to censor a topic, chances are I won’t see it.

If the average American isn’t actively reading any news site daily, they probably do get most of their news from Facebook.

All of this means that we may be living in a new era where, rather than Rupert Murdoch or Michael Bloomberg holding massive sway over the news stories to which we are exposed, now it is technology firms like Google or Facebook that hold that power.

As a movie fan, I’ve long felt the same way since the advent of Blockbuster Video – at a certain point about 12 years ago, Blockbuster had become such a dominant force in movie rentals that if they didn’t carry a certain film, chances were you couldn’t find it at all.

I feel the same way about streaming services today – Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu collectively dictate more than 90 percent of what I watch – so if a movie or TV show is not carried by one of those three channels, I won’t see it.

So what?

I’m not particularly surprised that Facebook’s Trending News exhibits a liberal bias.

After all, CEO Mark Zuckerberg only a few weeks ago criticized presidential candidate Donald Trump, saying in a speech at last month’s F8 conference, “I hear fearful voices calling for building walls. Instead of building walls, we can help people build bridges.”

Likewise, Zuckerberg was a major force in the founding of Fwd.us, a pro-immigration reform political action group whose views conflict with the mainstream Republican platform on immigration.

Still, the big revelations of

a) human curation (“you mean trending stories aren’t automatically selected by a pure algorithm?”) and

b) active censorship

seem like a breach of trust between Facebook and its users.

As a for-profit social network, Facebook as a company does not actually owe us anything.

But the outsized outrage over these censorship revelations the last 24 hours stems largely from the perception that Facebook (and Google and Twitter) should be better than this – that the implied social contract is that it will reflect our friends’ sentiments and posts and trending topics without censorship or bias.

And as I sip my coffee this morning as the sun rises over the trees, I’m thinking of Plato’s analogy of the cave.

And I somehow wish I could go back to yesterday, having not been freed from my shackles so that I could continue to live satisfied by the shadows on the cave wall, blissfully ignorant of Facebook’s active curation of my news, let alone my feed itself.

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