Is Facebook Manipulating the News?

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May 11, 2016; New York Times

Gawker Media Group’s Gizmodo website published a story last Monday, quoting former Facebook contractors accusing the Internet giant with editorial bias in its news feeds. The bias allegedly includes neglecting or downplaying conservative stories, topics, and media websites while sometimes artificially emphasizing non-conservative story lines Facebook leaders believed deserved more attention.

Conservatives have long believed that the mainstream media are biased against their views, and the Gizmodo report plays into that belief. It doesn’t help that the Facebook spokesperson who initially denied the reported bias is himself a maxed-out donor to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and that Facebook executives have given her campaign more than $114,000 through March. That total is almost seven times higher than that received by Marco Rubio, the Republican presidential candidate receiving the most support from Facebook executives.

By the end of the week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had promised a “full investigation” as well as a commitment to reach out to representatives of conservative media and thought. A letter to Zuckerberg from U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, may have helped increase visibility of the issue and focused Zuckerberg’s attention.

The New York Times has been following the story and believes it bears watching for several reasons. More than 167 million U.S. subscribers and one billion people worldwide receive Facebook’s news feeds every day, from home subscribers to media editors, politicians, educators, and policymakers. Facebook’s editorial choices can, quite literally, influence what the world is thinking and talking about.

But isn’t Facebook’s news feed ranked using an impersonal, impartial computer algorithm? Not really, say the former Facebook workers who helped compile and publish the newsfeed. Selecting articles is a very human process performed by “news curators” who examine the information developed by Facebook’s algorithms and make judgment calls on the appropriateness of the topics, stories, and sources.

“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said the former curator. This individual asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the company. The former curator is politically conservative, one of a very small handful of curators with such views on the trending team. “I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”

Another issue calling Facebook’s editorial choices into question is its recent announcement that it is contracting with media outlets to pay for streaming video and other news content to be “broadcast” using Facebook. Which outlets will it contract with—or refuse to contract with—and why? Will subscribers be told which content is paid for by Facebook and which is not?

Editorial bias is common and is not in itself wrong. As long as there has been a press, there have been publications with an ideological viewpoint—liberal, moderate, conservative, libertarian, and all the others. Special interest publications are plentiful, with each taking a particular view of events and issues. Bias consists not only in how stories are reported, but, more importantly, how stories and sources for stories are selected by editors. Most publications proudly proclaim their editorial viewpoint as they seek to build their audience, and audiences choose to consume (or avoid) publications based on their ideology as well as their accessibility and journalistic quality.

The Facebook story does offer a reminder of how editorial bias works and the need for critical thinking by aware and informed consumers. As a for-profit corporate media outlet, Facebook owes no explanations to Senator Thune or any government representative about its editorial decisions. However, it does owe the public, and especially its subscribers, a simple and transparent explanation of its own biases and choices in what it presents to the planet as “trending news.”—Michael Wyland

  • Thank you Michael. This conservative agrees. Most conservative commentators also agree. Facebook is a private company. Taxpayers do not pay for Facebook. We have no problem with Facebook having political biases. We’ve all experienced the “wrath of Facebook” when they get touchy about what conservatives post. We know where Zuckerberg’s sympathies lie. That’s not the issue. Transparency is. Every news media outlet has its biases. I went to journalism school and I know quite well how to spin a story to make a point. That’s Journalism 101. We know it goes on. We just think you need to be up front about it. NPQ has long leaned left as well. To their credit they do, on occasion, post conservative viewpoints and generally let you know ahead of time that it is a conservative viewpoint so their liberal readers have time to retreat to their safe spaces.

    But one of the things that makes the Facebook story news is that they have already been caught participating in a government funded study in which they used their Top Stories default news feed to edit member posts in order to eliminate “negative” posts to see if the member’s posts then become less aggressive. I didn’t know they were involved in the study until they got caught, but I did have to download an app that would switch my news feed back to “recent messages” every time Facebook automatically switched me back to Top Stories and the edited version of my personal message stream. During that time, my friends weren’t getting my posts and I wasn’t getting theirs till I twigged to that hack and fixed it so I saw all my friends posts. During this time, my liberal buddies had no trouble getting through to me with the latest “progressive” good news. It was obvious something was going on.

    Facebook was manipulating data and using its members as guinea pigs and when it came out that they had been doing that, it looked to a lot of us as if someone wanted to know whether manipulating news feeds could make the proletariat calmer and more liberal in their views. We felt that way because it was mostly conservative posts that were being edited out of Top Stories – at least that was what I observed looking at the difference between the Top Story lineup and the full up recent messages lineup of posts.

    I really dislike conspiracy theories and I don’t believe that there is any organization of leftist power elite or anything like that. There does, however, appear to be a confluence of interest among people working toward a social agenda that they all share. It is one I do not share and neither do most conservatives. It comes down to a collectivist human designed centrally planned utopia vs the rowdier individualistic, free market, every man for himself, religious model which posits that man is by nature wicked and can’t be trusted with power.

    The old saying goes that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That really doesn’t work because we’ve all seen great moral leaders who do not crave power, use it wisely and lay it down willingly when the work is done. So that old saw is probably wrong. Which is why we keep thinking that if we just had the collective ruled by the right people, we’d do better than the 20th century collectivists who were responsible for more death and destruction than any political or religious entity in history.

    Actually, the principle should be stated more like this. “Power attracts the Corruptible”. Why else is it that the last two candidates standing from either party are both seen (by the opposite parties of course) as incredibly corrupt. The Republican candidate has such a history of corruption that he has thoroughly polarized what he claims is his own party with potentially up to a third of the party’s members – mostly the conservative base – ready to walk out if he gets the nomination.

    The truth is that at this point Facebook’s manipulation of the recent news is relatively trivial next to some of the other manipulation going on out there and for a larger and larger number of us it’s becoming, not about Republican vs Democrat, but about good vs. evil. One thing good that has happened is a significant number of both liberals and conservatives have come to agree on one thing. We don’t like Trump or Clinton and won’t vote for them. That’s new! We’ve been voting for the lesser of two evils for so long, it’s been a surprise even to us that we might have another principled choice. To vote “no”, full well knowing we will lose much by acting on principle is surprisingly liberating. I’m a Texan raised on the story of the Alamo, so I don’t mind losing at this point if it might just rally Americans to do something right next time around.

    Here’s hoping.

    Tom King