Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.
That’s not exactly what I would have suppressed, but I can’t say I am broken up about this. Most media bias in journalism is demand-driven, and I suspect this feature of the article selection and elevation “algorithm” is perceived by Facebook as demand-driven as well. Overall I think of Twitter as radicalizing, and Facebook as calming and connecting. The “censored” right wing sources don’t fit the chummy, nostalgic socializing mood so well, and therefore Facebook wanted to keep them away. A clear minority is sufficiently interested in those stories to get them trending initially, but that’s not the overall image Facebook wants to present to either its marginal or median user.
Maybe such algorithms mean that social ideas are too slow to change, because user demand depends in part on what Facebook pushes. Right now I’m more worried about American ideas getting worse than American ideas getting better, so a status quo, don’t offend anybody bias I can live with. And frankly, a lot of right-wing news sources just aren’t very good — I suppress them myself, without any aid from Facebook.
There is also this:
“People stopped caring about Syria,” one former curator said. “[And] if it wasn’t trending on Facebook, it would make Facebook look bad.” That same curator said the Black Lives Matter movement was also injected into Facebook’s trending news module. “Facebook got a lot of pressure about not having a trending topic for Black Lives Matter,” the individual said. “They realized it was a problem, and they boosted it in the ordering. They gave it preference over other topics. When we injected it, everyone started saying, ‘Yeah, now I’m seeing it as number one’.” This particular injection is especially noteworthy because the #BlackLivesMatter movement originated on Facebook, and the ensuing media coverage of the movement often noted its powerful social media presence.
In those two cases I see the change in coverage as bringing net content gain rather than loss. The cynical underlying reality is that Facebook does not wish to appear heartless, but does not (yet) have the more subtle manipulative institutions that newspapers and TV stations have developed over decades or even centuries. They clumsily act in a politically correct manner, without proper institutional camouflage, and now they are being called on it. They will refine their bias, and make it subtler and harder to criticize, thereby becoming more like most other media outlets. Ultimately this is more of a social conformity story than a monopoly power dilemma. I am more worried about pervasive ennui and complacency than the political bias per se.