- Politics and Social Issues
Facebook's Censorship Investigation? Self Declared Innocence
A few weeks back, a Gizmodo article lit a firestorm of controversy. In an effort to put out the blaze, Facebook summoned conservative subjects to their palace in California by Prince Mark Zuckerberg amid news reports that liberal bias played a part in how republican red-meat issues were ranked in trending topics. Liberal bias in media is hardly shocking since the GOP has been complaining about it since Ronald-the-Ray-Gun was president. Radio talk shows, conservative writers, and of course Fox News had a field day ironically playing the victim. But by bringing up Big Brother, they lit up a critical issue society prefers to be in the dark.
Social media remains a black-hat in the controversy. But what makes up social sites? Our interests, breaking news, editorials, and reading preferences create the trends posted by Facebook. At least that's what should happen. Gizmodo reported, "Facebook's trending section is run largely like a newsroom and curators can "inject" and "blacklist" topics." Most websites' (including Facebook) trending topics section rise to the top of the leaderboard by winning the approval of neutral algorithms that discern the number of page views they receive. Seems fair but Facebook adds a human touch to the process. The human hand is the problem.
The original allegations came from former news curators of the trending topics department and revealed conservative viewpoints were being suppressed. They were also instructed to inject topics that were not popular enough to garner placement on their highly sought website real estate and in some cases were not trending at all. All newsrooms operate under the organic bias of personal preference and is not necessarily a cardinal sin. But the problem is exasperated when the official Facebook claim is that their topics are determined simply by what is popular. You may be asking yourself, why is this important?
Facebook's domination dictates what people are permitted to read at any given time, and when you consider the 167 million users in the US alone, their great power demands even greater responsibility. The process of selecting breaking news is done by green Ivy Leaguers and elite east coast university graduates. After selections are made, they create headlines, summaries, and make links to the article's original websites. The anonymous whistleblower kept track of the blacklisted viewpoints stating, "I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.” The chilling effect did not stop there.
Other news items rejected included how IRS employee, Lois Learner, targeted conservative non-profit groups, links to the Drudge Report, American Sniper Chris Kyle, and conservative websites who were subjected to subjective suppression. One tipster told of when an algorithm identified a conservative story they were forced to search for a neutral site that provided the same information often from places like The NY Times or CNN the bastions of nonjudgemental justice. And if sites like Breitbart, The Washington Examiner, or Newsmax covered a topic not included in the Times or other nanny neutrals, they were rejected outright even if they were identified by Facebook's algorithm.
Supervisors directed curators to alter the popular post section by introducing stories they considered important which artificially attached importance even though user activity demonstrated a lack of interest. Management force-fed inorganic news items into the news feed of a billion Facebookers. Rather than monitoring what users were talking about and sharing, allowing the cream of the crop to rise to the top, these injected stories would sometimes rank #1 out of all trending topics. Remember the limited space of any website means when a story is included one is also pushed out unwarranted.
This is how it worked. Curators were told if BBC, CNN, or The New York Times ran a story above the fold they were permitted to insert the topic. Obviously, these are big-time publications, but they were not naturally trending on Facebook creating optics not conducive to neutrality. The motivation behind the injection tool was to create an atmosphere where people talked about hard news and not just the latest cat video. Enter the Black Lives Movement. The genesis of BLM occurred on the fertile land tilled by Facebook curators who were on the receiving end of political pressure if their posts did not trend. This favoring helped to push them on to the national stage.
Not surprisingly, critical content of F-book got banished completely. Grassroot discussions normally propelled news articles into the top ten trending topics solely by the number of posts, views, comments. and shares. Not this time. An Anonyms tattle tale revealed, "When it was a story about the company, we were told not to touch it, It had to be cleared through several channels, even if it was being shared quite a bit. We were told that we should not be putting it on the trending tool." Cautious curators had to walk on thin ice seeking approval whenever shade was thrown in their direction.
Facebook's Non-Apology Apology
Facebook's vigorous investigation and conservative summit produced this gem from Tom Stocky which states, "...regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum. Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any political origin, period. What these guidelines show is that we’ve approached this responsibly and with the goal of creating a high-quality product.” They checked themselves and declared their innocence. Nothing to see folks, move along.
The Guardian unearthed additional disturbing material that has not gained much national traction. They discovered the heavy hand of Big Brother in the tip jar this time. It's all about the money which is more understandable since they are a muli-multi-billion dollar company. Despite the uproar that suppressed conservative articles caused, the news feed pays the bills. It is completely controlled by an algorithm that enables it to hide under a faux-neutrality. The mathematical curator can't be seen, questioned, or interviewed, yet it controls everything you see on your feed. Besides, you actually work for facebook whether you know it or not when you create content by posting news articles, family pictures, or anything else that catches your eye. Advertisers slide into your feed to sell their products and make millions of dollars off your family. Your welcome.
The irony about the revelation Facebook is like any other center-left media aggregator is that they play the role of a blindfolded statue of justice. In reality, they decide what people should care about to a greater extent than they will ever admit. Zuckerberg, the billion-dollar-man, has the power to influence the outcome of the most powerful office in the world dropped the subtlety and went after Trump without ever saying his name. Direct quote, "“I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as ‘others, I hear them calling for blocking free expression, for slowing immigration, for reducing trade, and in some cases, even for cutting access to the internet.” from the F8 Developer Conference. So much for not mixing business with political poison.
Facebook's driving philosophical position is that they want to bring important information to help users understand the world a little better. But when they actively insert and reject a particular point of view, the result ends up breaking the journalistic Hypocratic Oath and does more harm than good.