Vince Coglianese, executive editor of The Daily Caller, isn’t terribly shocked to hear that Facebook might have been downplaying conservative media in its trending topics.
As the editorial lead of the right-leaning website, healso doesn’t seem ready to make a gigantic deal about it.
“I can’t say that I was completely surprised,” Coglianese told Mashable. “Ithink most people realize that Facebook, to the extent that it is political, is liberal.”
“I think most people realize that Facebook, to the extent that it is political, is liberal.”
In short, Facebook is more or less an extension of how conservatives see the broader media world full of an inherent liberal bias that has become just a part of life.
“It would not be tremendously surprising to any of us to learn that the behavior that is discussed in the Gizmodo article is occurring, however, and its a subject that is worthy of discussion,” wroteLeon Wolf, managing editor of RedState.com, in a leveled note about the controversy.
Gizmodocaptured the attention of the media world on Monday with a post that alleged contractors who worked on Facebook’s trending topics section had purposefully blocked conservative media outlets from appearing in the trending news story list.
The piece added that there was no evidence Facebook or its leadership had mandated this approach. Instead, it had been perpetrated unilaterally by employees who had the power to choose what would appear within Facebook’s trending section.
It is a fixable problem, and the report does not allege that Facebook had been more broadly penalizing conservative media in its almighty Edge Rank algorithm, which determines what users see in their News Feeds.
It is, however, a reminder of how important Facebook has become in modern media and the inherent risks that come when a large for-profit corporation accrues that concentrated power.
“Facebook content does shape peoples world views now and Facebook, exercising control over which news outlets get spotlighted, does intentionally play a role in those world views being shaped,” saysErick Erickson, founder of RedState.com.
Just how big of a story was this particular controversy? Well, Facebook eventually included a link to the Facebook story in the Facebook trending section.
All the news that’s PC to print
Both Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg have actively tried to strike an apolitical tone over the years.
Facebook helped host Democratic and Republican presidential debates andrecently announced a sponsorship deal with both major parties for their respective conventions.
Zuckerberg haspublicly stated that he is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. He has met with President Obama on multiple occasions and hired members of his staff, but also befriended New Jersey governor Chris Christie. (He has gone so far as to subtly jab at GOP nominee Donald Trump, however.)
When it comes to political media on Facebook, there’s a similar balance.
Liam Corcoran, head of communications at social media analytics startup NewsWhip, said that conservative media has had a strong presence on Facebook, adding that many leaner upstarts had been able to compete with larger institutions like the BBC and New York Times.
“Conservative media on Facebook knows a particular niche audience very well,” Corcoran said in an interview. “We’ve seen conservative sites more likely to break in out of the blue into the top 25 sites [on Facebook].”
In NewsWhip’s March rankings, Fox News and Breitbart respectively placed third and 15th.
Red, white but mostly blue
Exactly how Facebook’s Trending Topics section works and how much traffic it drives is unclear. The company does not disclose details about its practices.
That’s not entirely uncommon in a tech world that has embraced a mix of algorithm-driven machine curation and human touch. Instagram and Twitter also use this kind of approach, leaving users and content providers with the task of figuring out just what will end up reaching audiences.
Just how those algorithms work, and what exactly is the role of humans, amount to trade secrets. At this point, Facebook’s Edge Rank algorithm is far more valuable than the recipe of Coca-Cola or KFC’s 11 herbs and spices.
also there seems to be thinking by non-technical people (including myself) that once you say “oh we use algorithms” bias is eliminated
_ (@MikeIsaac) May 9, 2016
That can make people nervous. It’s not news that the Trending Topics section had used human moderators, but the notion that they were able to pick and choose news pieces not expressly following the algorithm comes as somewhat of a shock.
Facebook noted that its guidelines prevent such actions, but stopped short of denying that the alleged biases had not been an issue.
“There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality,” a spokesperson for Facebook said in a statement provided to Mashable. “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.”
This does little to shed light on Facebook’s day-to-day operations or do much to really assuage fears that even a well-meaning employee could end up tipping the scale.
Erickson, the founder of RedState.com and the more recently launched The Resurgent, said that he did believe Facebook had a liberal bias and that its role in modern media called for more transparency.
“I certainly think Facebook needs to reconsider its policy and also recognize that while it hides behind a distinction between news outlets and advocacy outlets, some of the news outlets it treats as news are engaging in advocacy with clear left-leaning biases,” Erickson wrote in an email to Mashable.
Vote of confidence
The allegations against Facebook coupled with its outsized media influence are a potent combo in a press industry already all-too-aware that it is being subsumed by the social network.
That’s all fair and good, but even those on the right-leaning side of media also feel they owe a certain amount to Facebook.
“It’s important to put this in context: Facebook has been a champion for creating a vast number of diverse voices that have been largely dwarfed by the traditional media outlets,” saidIndependent Journal Review Editor in Chief Bubba Atkinson in an email to Mashable“We’ve heard this narrative but we have never seen any evidence that this is the case.”
Coglianese echoed those sentiments, adding that the Callerhas no plans to change its editorial operations in light of the Gizmodostory.
Rights versus left, he said, is not what concerns him on Facebook. Rather, it’s news versus entertainment.
It was, he said, disheartening to watch how well stories about celebrities perform while news finds a middle audience. Such is producing media on Facebook, he said.
“It’s heartening to see so many media outlets concerned about this,” he said, “but I think it suggests to them that danger may lie ahead even if they don’t have conservative audiences.”
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