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.