Facebook controls the news, say former staff

Party line? The Day envisions the impact Facebook’s staff may have had on their news feed.

Mark Zuckerberg is meeting high-profile US conservatives today after claims that Facebook staff suppressed news stories. Is Facebook just a neutral platform for sharing information?

A contributor to Fox News. A slain former US Navy Seal. The Republican governor of the state of Wisconsin.

According to an anonymous former Facebook employee, staff at the social network are preventing users from hearing about these people.

Last week, several curators of content told the technology website Gizmodo that staff on the social network’s ‘trending’ news section ‘routinely’ prevented stories with a conservative slant from appearing on users’ pages.

‘Popular conservative topics wouldn’t trend,’ said one. ‘Either the curator didn’t recognise the topic or they had a bias. I believe it had a chilling effect.’

Stories from conservative websites, they added, were only included if the subject was also being covered by liberal or mainstream outlets. One source said staff artificially drove serious news stories to the top of the list: ‘we would get yelled at if a story was all over Twitter and not on Facebook’. Another said they promoted the controversial racial campaign group Black Lives Matter and hid criticism of Facebook.

Facebook is now highly influential. It reaches 1.65 billion monthly users worldwide, and internet news outlets are rapidly replacing traditional ones.

The company says it is a neutral platform for sharing information, with ‘rigorous guidelines to ensure consistency and neutrality’. Gizmodo says ‘there is no evidence that Facebook management mandated or was even aware of any political bias at work’.

But the alleged behaviour is reminiscent of traditional newspapers — which openly advocate editorial lines. And in Facebook’s case, such a stance is more opaque: a study in 2015 suggested that more than 60% of their users did not realise algorithms were curating their content at all.

One former curator says: ‘It wasn’t trending news at all. It was an opinion.’ The social network’s founder has publicly expressed liberal views on several occasions and the ‘trending’ news staff had mostly graduated from liberal universities.

Is Facebook the neutral platform it claims to be? Or do we now have — without even realising it — the world’s largest ever publisher, with its own agenda?

Face-off

The company says Facebook is just a medium which people use to share information. It has gained so many users because it appeals to people across the political spectrum. Its mission is simply to connect people and get them sharing ideas — no matter what they are.

Neutrality is a pipe dream, say critics. Facebook is responsible for the content published on it, and it has its own identity and values. It is inherently liberal: its mission statement says the company wants to make the world ‘open and connected’ and to give people ‘the power to share’.

You Decide

  1. Are you concerned by the allegations against Facebook?
  2. Is Facebook a neutral platform or a publisher with its own values and identity?

Activities

  1. Write your own page of ‘trends’, listing ten things you have learnt in school recently which you can remember. Then discuss in pairs: what does your page say about you?
  2. Work in a group of four. You are going to create a social network of your own. Write a one-paragraph mission statement, like Facebook’s one under Become An Expert. Discuss as a class: are these statements politically neutral?

Some People Say...

“There is no such thing as political neutrality.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t use Facebook for news — I only read The Day. Does this still affect me?
Facebook has a far bigger reach than any newspaper or TV channel has had in the past. Even if you do not read their trending topics, many people do. That will play a part in shaping their opinions — which could affect things like the tax you pay, the services you use or even whether you are asked to go to war. And if Facebook changes the news agenda, perhaps others will too.
Could Facebook brainwash me?
You now have the opportunity to read and hear about a very wide range of views and experiences. But some worry that social media is too tailored to you. If all your friends and all the articles you read agree with you, it can make you more sure you are right — when you may be ignoring a different, valid opinion.

Word Watch

Contributor
Steven Crowder, who now hosts an online talk show. After the revelations, Crowder said he would file a law suit against Facebook.
Seal
Chris Kyle, whose story is told in the film American Sniper .
Governor
Scott Walker, who ran for US president this year.
Controversial
Black Lives Matter was created to protest against black deaths at the hands of US police. It has been criticised for, among other things, ignoring black people’s deaths at the hands of other black people.
1.65 billion
According to Facebook’s quarterly report issued in April 2016.
Traditional
A study by Zenith Optimedia — in 65 countries — found that global newspaper and magazine consumption fell by 26% and 19% respectively between 2010 and 2014.
Study
Conducted by academics at the University of Michigan.
Liberal views
For example, Mark Zuckerberg has praised Black Lives Matter, criticised Donald Trump and affirmed his commitment to fighting climate change.
Universities
Many graduated from Ivy League colleges and private schools on the US east coast — both of which are generally regarded as liberal enclaves.

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