Last week saw a number of interesting headlines regarding Facebook and accusations of political bias. Specifically, a number of former Facebook staffers are claiming that the Facebook team in charge of the trending news stories routinely suppressed articles that came from conservative news sources. Additionally, these ex-Facebook staff stated that they were told to place certain stories into the site’s news module, regardless of whether or not they were actually trending. The report on this first appeared on the website Gizmodo and afterwards was picked up by news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. If you have the time, I suggest reading the original Gizmodo report for the full details, which can be found here. Facebook has been scrambling to mitigate the fallout from these allegations, though I doubt they are going to experience any significant drop in their user base or ad revenue. Even though this whole thing may very well just blow over, the Gizmodo report got my mental juices flowing, and I thought I’d share four things that have come to mind during the preceding days.
First, if you’re relying on Facebook as your primary source for news, you’re making a massive mistake. While it may be true that traditional news outlets are sometimes guilty of excessively truncating and dumbing-down the news for the sake of a wide audience, Facebook’s trending news stories take this phenomenon to a whole new level. There’s also the issue that these trending news stories are just that – trending – meaning their appearance is based on popularity rather than actual importance to individuals or society. Simply put, I do not believe it is possible for you to be a well-informed person if you have Facebook as your main source of information.
Second, Facebook is well within its rights to do this and is under no obligation to anyone to have any level of balance in the news stories it highlights. Just as Fox News can legally spin the news in a conservative direction and MSNBC can do the same in a liberal direction, Facebook can highlight and slant news stories any way it sees fit. If you have a problem with this, take it up with the First Amendment.
Third, no one should be surprised by this. I’ve been on Facebook since 2005, and I can’t remember a single instance (until now) when Facebook claimed political neutrality. Facebook is run by people, and its algorithms were made by people, and people have biases. If Facebook’s news curators really are as overwhelmingly liberal as the Gizmodo report suggests, then it naturally follows that they would tend to elevate news stories deemed important by the political left while holding back ones deemed important by the political right.
Fourth, this report highlights the incredible, and perhaps disturbing, power that Facebook has to shape people’s views. With over 220 million users in the United States and Canada, and over a billion users worldwide, the news stories Facebook chooses to highlight can reach an audience that any other website or news outlet can only dream of. If those users are regularly bombarded with news stories promoting a particular political ideology, its nearly inevitable that some of them will start shifting their views. Even if it’s a small fraction, like ten percent, that’s still over 22 million people in the United States and Canada and 100 million people worldwide. This begs the question of whether or not we are okay with a single entity having that much influential power over people. That’s something our society will have to decide for itself.