There’s been quite a kerfluffle in the last 48 hours or so since a Gizmodo story claiming Facebook staff routinely tamped down stories with a conservative political bias or point of view so that they would not appear in the “Trending” news section that’s shown to people. That report has been denied by Facebook spokespeople, who say not only are these specific charges untrue but that safeguards are in place to make sure that section is representative of what’s really trending and that the process it uses to do so is constantly under review. That hasn’t stopped conservative news sites from lashing out at the alleged bias and RNC chair Reince Priebus from demanding Facebook provide an answer, despite the fact that it’s already provided an answer. The outrage is delicious because it fits into conservative’s favorite narrative, which is that the liberal elite – this time personified by Facebook – are always trying to oppress them.
Here’s the thing, though: It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.
Now let me back that up a little bit. Of course it matters. Any time a news organization favors one point of view over another it becomes harmful to the public discourse. And the reality is we don’t know what Facebook is doing other than it has a “process” for the News Feed in general and the Trending section in particular. That process, though, is incredibly opaque and not something that can be evaluated objectively, unlike most other news organizations. We all know Fox News has a conservative bias in its news presentation, but by comparison that’s an incredibly open process that media watchdogs and pundits can discuss and analyze and, ultimately, accept.
Facebook, though, hides behind the algorithm in its News Feed presentation and the “process” for Trending stories as if they are completely objective, but that’s not true. Even if you take that to the level that the human biases of the programmers are not injected into the algorithm, that tool is ultimately designed to reinforce what you like and believe because it’s based, at least in part, on what you already like and engage with.
Even more deeply than that, Facebook continues to accept its role as a news platform. That’s because to do so would mean it has to start acting like a news platform, something it’s loathe to do. Such changes would mean being more open about its processes, adding in an ombudsman of some sort and accepting some sort of responsibility for what is presented to the public in the same way a TV station, newspaper, online news site or other organization does.
So the issue is not whether Facebook is or isn’t suppressing conservative news. It’s how Facebook suppresses *any* news. That’s the question that continues to vexes anyone who’s paying attention, which unfortunately is not most of the Facebook-using public, which is largely unaware that there’s any sort of filtering going on in the News Feed. It is, however, the most essential one that needs to be answered.