The topic gained significant traction after a gizmodo article, aptly titled “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News“, talked about how Facebook “news curators”, the people responsible for managing and maintaining the news feed, were reported to have censored topics of interest to conservatives.
“It was absolutely bias. We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is” – A Former Curator
The author, Michael Nunez, who had drawn from a previous article, described the current Facebook trending news team as “a small group of young journalists, primarily educated at Ivy League or private East Coast universities”. According to the testimonies of several anonymous former Facebook workers, these curators disregarded headlines and trending topics that were more aligned to the far right. In addition, stories coming from established conservative outlets, such as Breitbart or the Washington Examiner, had to be cross-checked with mainstream outlets, such as CNN, BBC, and the New York Times, before placement in the trending topics section.
A few weeks ago, the Chairmen of the Senate Commerce Committee, John Thune, sent a letter to Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, asking to explain the process of selecting topics and sources for political bias on the trending topics page.
“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 viewpoints, Facebook’s assertion that it maintains a ‘platform for people and perspectives across the political spectrum’ misleads the public” – John Tune
The controversy became so heated that Zuckerberg took to Facebook to dispel with claims of bias and held a meeting with several notable conservatives including conservative radio host, Glenn Beck, Fox News reporter, Dana Perino, and senior advisor for Donald Trump, Barry Bennet to discuss the controversy and how Facebook is committed to being “a platform of ideas” that allows for a range of voices across the political spectrum to be heard.
With social media having an increasingly prominent role in our lives today, it was only a matter of time until people started to question whether there are any implicit biases behind the new medium. However, I would argue that the trending issue with Facebook is not indicative of a systematic effort to suppress conservative views but rather a testament to the way social media transformed the way people access news and perceive information.
One group that has been influenced by this trend more so than any other is the millenials. Studies have shown that around 61% of millennials get political news from Facebook over traditional television outlets. There are several reasons for this trend; however, one prominent reason I would argue is that people have the implicit notion that mainstream media is trying to sell a narrative or idea rather than reporting on the facts. If you consider outlets such as Fox News or MSNBC, which are viewed as conservative and liberal media sources respectively, social media may have the allure of being almost “neutral space” by which people can view news based on what is important to people at the time rather than what fits the narrative or idea that is being represented. In some ways, one could say that millenials tend to trust the objective judgment of an algorithm as opposed to a pundit or reporter in delivering relevant news topics.
The fact that conservative politicians and pundits are actively criticizing Facebook is a testament to the power that social media has in delivering content and ideas. This really poses the question as to what level of influence should social media have in our perceptions of a particular topic or idea. Going back to millenials, conservatism may have some negative connotation associated with it due to how it opposes or discourages radical social change on principle.
If you look at college campuses today, radical social change and subversion are the hallmarks of the college ideological experience. If you look at controversies regarding political correctness of college campuses, the call for “safe spaces”, or the restriction of “microaggressions” and trigger words, one could definitely observe a trend in social and political perceptions today. Now when you consider the role social media plays in the 2016 presidential election, this is a particular topic worth considering.
Now going back to the Facebook controversy, is this necessarily a case where conservatism is censored? I would say not necessarily. Is this a case where the power of social media is acknowledged? Yes. Are we saying people are influenced by what we see? Yes. So the real problem with the Facebook censorship controversy is not in the notion of censorship but rather in the idea that people have become so increasingly dependent on social media that controversies such as this are present. To the mainstream media, I would say that the questions to consider are why this is the cause and what role you may have played in fueling this shift. To the people in general, I would ask at what level do we set the standards for fair and accurate reporting on social media.