Congress Questions Facebook About Something It Probably Didn't Do With A Feature That Barely Matters

from the fairness-doctrine? dept

So just a couple of weeks ago, we had a discussion on the Techdirt podcast about whether or not it was appropriate for platforms like Facebook and Google to sway elections. As that discussion noted, while the obvious instinctual reaction is “hell no, that’s horrible,” the issue is a bit trickier and more nuanced the more you delve into it. Obviously, traditional media regularly present information in ways prompted to influence elections — even to the point of endorsing candidates. But when things become algorithmic, for some reason, they get more complicated, because people like to think that an algorithm somehow is “neutral” or unbiased — leaving out the fact that that algorithm is, you know, programmed by people and those people have their own biases and beliefs. But, the simple fact is that there’s no such thing as a “neutral” platform in any real sense if there’s anything that involves ranking. A ranking system is inherently biased because it needs to be. By definition, it’s ranking things.

This week, there’s been a big kerfuffle over a claim published at Gizmodo that Facebook’s “trending stories” list was somehow biased against conservative sources, and that the humans who maintain the trending list were told not to link to certain sites, such as Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax. This followed on some overwrought and exaggerated reporting about the people who work on the trending news team.

The “Facebook suppressing conservative news stories” hook is attention grabbing and of course is generating a lot of chatter and reactions, some more intelligent than others. But there are a few problems with it. First, and most importantly, it’s likely not true. Facebook’s trending team boss put out a statement denying the key points and making it sound like whoever Gizmodo’s source is took a kernel of truth — that Facebook employees will check stories to see if they have some sort of factual basis before including them in the trending list — and twisted that into a claim of bias. Specifically, Facebook says:

There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics.

Trending Topics is designed to showcase the current conversation happening on Facebook. Popular topics are first surfaced by an algorithm, then audited by review team members to confirm that the topics are in fact trending news in the real world and not, for example, similar-sounding topics or misnomers.

We are proud that, in 2015, the US election was the most talked-about subject on Facebook, and we want to encourage that robust political discussion from all sides. We have in place strict guidelines for our trending topic reviewers as they audit topics surfaced algorithmically: reviewers are required to accept topics that reflect real world events, and are instructed to disregard junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources.

In short, it sounds like the source for Gizmodo’s article may have turned situations in which stories were deemed to have “insufficient sources” and claimed that it was a way to lock out conservative voices. Some will, undoubtedly, claim that Facebook’s statement on this is lying, but I don’t believe that’s the case. I’ve been talking to a number of people at Facebook, including those close to the Trending Topics folks, and they insist that the story is not even remotely true. Other reporters appear to be hearing the same thing.

And, frankly, this makes sense. I honestly would *never* expect (for example) a Techdirt story to make it into Facebook’s trending list, because we’re not the kind of site that’s likely to get listed there, as we’re mostly about opinion, rather than hard news. But I don’t think that’s some sort of nefarious “bias.” I think it’s about focusing the trending list on more standard journalism.

The second big issue with this is that I find it difficult to believe that Facebook’s trending stories even matter that much. Frankly, I didn’t even know it existed and had never even noticed it on my Facebook page until I went and sought it out for this particular story (for what it’s worth, I actually assumed it would be in the left column and was surprised to find it in the right). As Nilay Patel rightly points out, the trending news box is “fundamentally unimportant and uninteresting.” Facebook works in the news feed, not in the trending topics box. And that news feed is still driven by what kinds of people you’re friends with. Remember, this is the same company that can’t figure out how to stop blatantly false news stories from spreading virally from feed to feed. Manual edits of the trending news topics is meaningless.

The third thing is that, as a private platform, Facebook does have the right to do what it wants. As John Roberts notes, the law here is pretty clearly established that Facebook has a First Amendment right to structure its trending news feed however it likes.

But, of course, in this politically charged season, politicians will let no good scandal — no matter how ridiculous — go unexploited, and thus we have Senator John Thune sending an angry letter to Facebook, demanding answers to a long list of questions around the Gizmodo story, and stating:

If Facebook presents its Trending Topics section as the result of a neutral, objective algorithm, but it is in fact subjective and filtered to support or suppress particular political viewpoints, Facebook’s assertion that it maintains a “platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum” misleads the public.

As noted above, this letter is ridiculous for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that Congress has no authority whatsoever to make Facebook change its algorithm, and it’s concerning that Senators think they might know a better way for Facebook to present content. But it’s made even more ridiculous by the fact that Thune (along with many on the conservative side of the political spectrum who are so upset by this) has been among the most outspoken voices on the horror of “the fairness doctrine,” which mandates a sort of “equal time” on news programs for opposing political views. In fact Thune himself cosponsored a bill in 2007 to bar the FCC from bringing back the fairness doctrine (side note: the FCC has expressed zero interest in bringing back the fairness doctrine, yet every so often politicians will accuse it of wishing to do so to score political points).

Oh, and in 2009, during yet another of the bogus “fairness doctrine” freakouts, Thune himself stated:

I believe it is dangerous for Congress and federal regulators to wade into the public airwaves to determine what opinions should be expressed and what kind of speech is ‘fair.” This undercuts every American’s freedom of speech, and I urge my colleagues to reject any renewed institution of the Fairness Doctrine, which is nothing more than government controlled censorship.

Yes, and now the same person who said that, is doing exactly what he was complaining about, and trying to argue that somehow Facebook’s editorial decisions are not “fair” enough. Ain’t no hypocrisy like Washington DC hypocrisy, folks.

As I said in the podcast, there are very legitimate concerns about large internet companies that may have too much control or too much influence. It’s certainly something that should be watched carefully, and there absolutely should be a lot more transparency about how all of this works. Transparency would solve a lot of these issues, frankly. But holding a collective freakout based on a flimsy story that doesn’t appear accurate (on a feature that isn’t important), leading to Congress suddenly wanting to get involved (even if only for grandstanding purposes), just seems to lessen the ability to focus on real issues when they inevitably arise.

And, of course, having Congress get involved just makes Congress look like a joke.

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Comments on “Congress Questions Facebook About Something It Probably Didn't Do With A Feature That Barely Matters”

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51 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

The “Facebook suppressing conservative news stories” hook is attention grabbing and of course is generating a lot of chatter and reactions, some more intelligent than others. But there are a few problems with it. First, and most importantly, it’s likely not true.

Oh please, the very act of deciding what is and what is not news worthy in and of itself is a biased activity.

The question is really, is the bias to a great enough degree to be all up in arms about it. Everything has a bias or spin to it, and the places that act like their shit does not stink are the smelliest!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Even if it was proven to be true, there’s nothing wrong with that. Private businesses are free to exercise their first amendment rights. The idea that many people see Facebook as a utility is somewhat understandable but has never been true. Even Google search results are biased. I believe the public deserves impartial, bias resistant services but few currently exist.

Anonymous Coward says:

starting with the fact that Congress has no authority whatsoever to make Facebook change its algorithm

Judging by the way they treat the constitution, they are of the belief that there is no restriction to their powers. That is the problem with politicians, (kings and emperors included), that has plagued human history, restrictions on their authority is something that is difficult to enforce without being in a position to point weapons at them. Wars are basically caused by politicians overstepping their authority and/or territory, and getting their populations to follow them into the abyss

Anonymous Coward says:

If we keep acting as if Facebook and Twitter are just individual publications with viewpoints rather than unprecedentedly monolithic curators of public discourse, we will get the future we deserve.

If you want to make the argument that they can do whatever they want and have no public responsibility to be neutral or unbiased, then make that argument, but if you do it without acknowledging the massive negative effect this will have on freedom of speech in the increasingly privatised public square, then you are leading sheep blindly to the slaughter.

At least face up to the likely consequences of the future you are advocating, and stop pretending that a monolithic nationwide (heck worldwide) social network being politically biased (secretly, even) is of no more concern than a bad editorial in the New York Times. It’s dishonest, and everybody who is tech-savvy enough to understand how massively services like Facebook and Twitter have distorted the political conversation, can see the dishonesty of pretending that it’s equivalent to what a newspaper does.

Facebook being politically biased about what goes over their network would have a cultural impact much more comparable to AT&T having the same bias. It isn’t comparable to a newspaper’s first amendment rights at all in its effects, and if you wish to argue that it’s legally comparable, then you still need to acknowledge that difference, or I’m going to dismiss your arguments as hopelessly naïve.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

but if you do it without acknowledging the massive negative effect this will have on freedom of speech in the increasingly privatised public square

Ok, let’s take a close look at the most recent parallel example: the last century of media companies. In thew last century, advertising giants have managed to consume radio and television media outlets and also a keen understanding of how to manipulate people (it’s called advertising).

If you think they are not very good at it, or people “see” it, you are being fooled. Advertising has a huge impact on our daily lives and these media conglomerates have political opinions and have and do ABSOLUTELY influence US elections.

I suppose you could make the same argument that they should not be able to do so and that we need some kind of regulation to prevent them from influencing elections, but, well, since they can influence elections and public opinion, you may be in a bit of a bind there.

Ultimately, it is probably good that additional organizations are managing to gather a toolset to have the same kind of influence. At least there is now someone with goals that are in conflict with the major media companies that could possibly be doing the same kind of manipulation. It might just cancel out some of what has already been happening for a long time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If we keep acting as if Facebook and Twitter are just individual publications with viewpoints rather than unprecedentedly monolithic curators of public discourse…

This was written by somebody on a site that is not Facebook or Twitter. The author probably got to this page via a site that was not Facebook or Twitter. This is on an Internet with a vast array of sites, to go alongside countless television channels, radio stations, and satellite communications (e.g., SiriusXM), plus classic formats like newspapers and magazines.

Contrast this with 100 years ago, where relatively few people had access to any media: no radio, no TV, no satellites, no Internet, and few newspaper options given the costs of distribution over large geographic areas. Instead, news would travel as much by word of mouth as anything else… and word of mouth is still possible today.

“Unprecedentedly monolithic” suggests that somebody failed their history courses.

RedBeard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If you want to make the argument that they can do whatever they want and have no public responsibility to be neutral or unbiased, then make that argument, but if you do it without acknowledging the massive negative effect this will have on freedom of speech in the increasingly privatised public square, then you are leading sheep blindly to the slaughter.

Facebook has no public responsibility to be neutral and/or unbiased. While is a nice ideal to think that corporation should have some concern for the public, the fact is they do not, unless specific laws have been enacted requiring such public responsibilities. Public corporations are mainly responsible to their shareholders. With very few exceptions corporate actions that benefit the general public are profit driven.

Facebook enables massive public speech, curating their news feed in no way prevents the news from being reported. You should be much more concerned about the domination of the fourth estate by a small number of corporations. This domination effectively allows a relatively small number of corporations undue influence on what is and what is not reported. Which of the following news outlet would be considered unbiased?

MSNBC;
The New York Times;
Fox News
Huffington Post
Drudge Report
CNN . . .

Every day editors choose which news stories to air/print/publish and invest in. None are unbiased although some are surely more biased.

If Congress is concern about unbiased news perhaps, they should consider legislation to reinstate some form of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine that the republicans pushed to have repealed. Although I have no idea how this could be implemented without conflicting with the First Amendment. Access to the internet is probably the best hope to limit the impact of the government and corporations on the free flow of information.

DogBreath says:

Guidelines vs. rules

All I could think about after reading this:

There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics.

Pirates of the Internet – Guidelines = Facebook Definition

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Point of perspective ...

Mike

From the perspective of Facebook being a publicly traded company, much like many news organizations, the bias in reporting is forgivable and allowable under the first amendment.

From the perspective of Facebook being the quintessential social media service provider, it is not. It would be as if AT&T, Comcast, Cox, or any other service provider suddenly decided what you have access to and what you do not.

Anonymous Coward says:

so companies like Google and Facebook mustn’t ‘influence’ elections, but lobbyists and bought and paid for senators and other influential politicians can do what the fuck they like to get a particular view entrenched via elected officials?
about right! one rule for those who benefit from particular industries getting their politician to be in charge, but a completely different rule when it’s someone else doing the same thing, but for their view via their politician to be at the front

John85851 (profile) says:

Conservatives complaining again

I hate to generalize, but it seems like this is simply conservatives complaining that their point-of-view isn’t getting pushed out as much as they want.

I don’t see them complaining about FOX News’ bias towards conservative Republican causes, yet that channel has the word “news” right in its name. Facebook doesn’t claim to be a news network. And in the case of FOX News, they absolutely control what’s news and what isn’t by what they decide to talk about.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Conservatives complaining again

The difference is everyone knows that Fox news, CBS, NBC, CNN are biased. People do not expect the post office, to not deliver mail from a specific political party, or AT&T to block political content it does not agree with. The same goes for Facebook, people do not expect things to be blocked or down graded.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Conservatives complaining again

If you don’t think Facebook is biased then you’re probably not looking hard enough. All companies are going to be biased and shed themselves in a good light. It’s what they do. It’s why many companies try so hard to sue people and attack bad publicity on sites like Yelp.

Facebook is not beholden to the same regulations as the Post Office or even AT&T. What they choose to block or show is entirely up to them.

It is no different than if you had a company website and displayed a Trending / Hot News of the Day section. You are completely free to choose what you want to display there.

wayout says:

Re: Conservatives complaining again

You do realize that it was insiders who leaked it, and who specifically said FB was filtering news articles with a conservative point of view…
In the case of FB, guess what, a lot of folks (for better or worse) get their news from FB. And what better way to guide conversations than by simply not letting certain articles see the light of day on FB. If those same folks arent looking at other news feeds to get a somewhat balanced view…than what becomes of their worldview when they only read articles from a certain perspective. I saw it during the Freddy Gray and Michael Brown issues…way to many folks had a certain bent on the subject…a bent that came from filtered news feeds, Once I pointed them to other articles, it was interesting to see their opinion shift. So no, its not just about “conservatives complaining that their point-of-view isn’t getting pushed out as much as they want”. FB has the very real ability to drive the conversation down the path that they choose by filtering what is seen.

RedBeard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Conservatives complaining again

You do realize that it was insiders who leaked it

I think you mean Former Facebook Workers, so they may be disgruntled former workers. I know it’s an easy reach.

In the case of FB, guess what, a lot of folks (for better or worse) get their news from FB. And what better way to guide conversations than by simply not letting certain articles see the light of day on FB.

You can easily replace “FB” with “Fox News” in your sentence above, especially for older Americans, but I don’t recall Congress being too concerned with the claims of conservative bias that have been made against Fox News.

Anonymous Coward says:

Freinds don't let friends Facebook.

There are so many excellent reasons to not participate in Facebook, its filter-bubble “news” feed is one of the least of their evils.

There are three types on FB:

1) commercial interests
2) surveillance state interests
3) the sheeple they exploit

If you’re not one of the first two on the list, best to maintain your human contact elsewise.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Freinds don't let friends Facebook.

You are overlooking the other type of group which use Facebook, in conjunction with other social media that suite immediate requirement, the shared interest groups, who use Facebook as the means of keeping in touch, and blogs, Youtube and Instagram etc, when it better serves their information needs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Freinds don't let friends Facebook.

No I’m not. See item “3” in the list.

I’m able to quite seamlessly keep in touch with my family/friends, actively participate in multiple online communities (both personal and professional), and have my information needs readily served – all without ever using Facebook. And you can too.

We shouldn’t facilitate FB’s mission to harvest our most personal data for sale to the highest bidder.

They’re evil bro.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

now for something completely different ...

On a totally different note. From the perspective of an investor, this censoring of new stories, would make me very nervous, as history has a way of repeating itself. MySpace was once the social media platform of choice for a sizable portion of the internet connected population.

It fell for several reason, the site attempting to become all things to all people, the failure to evolve, and the big one, the perception problem that lead to people believing MySpace was not safe.

If this perception that Facebook is biased becomes a cultural/societal belief, it could lead to the failure of the company. In reality most people have heard about Facebook’s experiments creepy experiment to alter moods opinions. (anotherlink) how many more things can Facebook get away with before people do not trust them anymore and move on?

Vidiot (profile) says:

“And, of course, having Congress get involved just makes Congress look like a joke.”

This is the real crux of the story. Someone made an unsubstantiated claim… not news, happens every day — sometimes hourly.

But it’s laughable — no, make that sad — that the same crumb of innuendo, so clearly unsubstantiated, can cause Sen. Thune and his caped crusaders to swing into action, something they clearly can’t manage in the name of passing legislation or, I don’t know, approving a Surpreme Court nominee. Stand and deliver, Facebook… respond to those rumors tout de suite or risk contempt of Congress charges.

It makes the blood boil, it does.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is beyond pathetic; this is probably the straw that makes me cease taking Techdirt seriously as a purveyor of news, opinions, or anything else.

Fuck you, Mike, for buying into the left driven propaganda that conservatives are not targeted by the government and media.

Fuck you, Mike, for claiming that a company of Facebook’s size, controlling so much of the political narrative in this decade, has no obligation to be unbiased.

Fuck you, Mike, for comparing the free speech of individuals to a company’s aggregation of news and information.

Fuck you, Mike, for belittling Congress in their attempts to make serious inquiry into an issue which goes far beyond Facebook: Twitter, for example, has shadowbanned prominent conservatives, shadow-deleted tweets even by Trump himself; Reddit is guilty of systematic suppression of non-liberal views and sliding of organically trending posts, not to mention the deliberate attempts by their left-leaning members to subvert other sites’ discourse in order to drive an openly socialist if not outright communist agenda; meanwhile, shadowy “media outreach” companies astroturf on every site imagineable, and only someone utterly lacking in either intelligence or integrity could claim with a straight face that public opinion is not being deliberately manipulated.

Fuck you, Mike, and every other mouth breathing, degenerate, circle jerking monkey on this site for living down to the worst possible stereotypes of the totalitarian liberal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Nobody is targeting conservatives you fucking retard, they also have their own biased media and companies. If you think this companies and websites are censoring conservartives opinions you are free to stop using them, for example you can go to an imageboard and circlejerk all you want there in your hivemind board.

Anonymous Coward says:

Facebook's already told us what happened...

“We have in place strict guidelines for our trending topic reviewers as they audit topics surfaced algorithmically: reviewers are required to accept topics that reflect real world events, and are instructed to disregard junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources.

According to a variety of fact-checking systems, a non-trivial number of “conservative news sources” – Rush, Hannity, Limbaugh, Fox News, and others of that ilk would pretty plainly seem to fall into this category.

SpaceLifeForm+ says:

New definition of community service

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/05/judge-resigns-as-nude-photos-of-defendants-found-on-his-computer/
I’m sure this (now former) judge should run for the US senate,
as he can get plenty of Facebook coverage now that the US
senate is investigating.
Perhaps there are senators with “injection tool” envy.

Oh, and do a
s/Facebook/Fox News/g
in Thunes letter.
It will still almost make sense.

Anonymous Howard says:

And another thing...

Facebook’s ‘Top Stories’ algorithm is utter shite. It randomly decides that a post from two weeks ago with no new likes or comments is suddenly a top story, meanwhile your friend’s recent post about being pregnant which has a constantly rising number of likes and comments somehow isn’t.

If that’s representative of facebook algorithms, well, it’s not bias, but crappiness.

Mr Big Content says:

"Facebook employees will check stories to see if they have some sort of factual basis"

See, they even ADMIT that they do it! EVERYONE knows that “factual basis” is liberal secret code for “left-leaning agenda”. This whole demand that stories be based on “fact” is just a MASSIVE CONSPIRACY to make right-thinking conservatives look like idiots!

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

Congress can Ask Questions of Anyone, But May Not Receive Answers

There is a newspaper downstairs from my office. They have a web site. Do you really think that Congress can ask them questions about how their stories are chosen?

Now try to distinguish Facebook, Fox, &c., in some First-Amendment-neutral manner and founded on something within the power of Congress to regulate.

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