Clutch your pearls, internet, Facebook news might be biased

Today the tech world is abuzz with the news that Facebook is actively engaging in selecting what news items are featured on its Trending News section and  that they used human curators to “inject” stories into the news section that they felt were not given enough prominence. These curators also had the authority to exclude certain stories from the trending section, such as items about Facebook itself. Finally, in what is seen as the worst offence, curators suppressed news items from conservative, right-wing news sources.

These are the news items trending for me on Facebook today. A weird mix of current events and science.

These are the news items trending for me on Facebook today. A weird mix of current events and science.

To be fair, some readers of that piece feel that Facebook can do what it wants and that users should apply caution. Others say that it seems like suppressing specific stories was more anecdotal than systematic. Still others feel that Facebook should have used curators, but hired neutral ones, not that there is such a thing. Then there are those who accept the story that the selection of items is systematically biased and rigged to suppress certain topics and promote others.

Facebook responded by saying that the guidelines are neutral. “There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. 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. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics.” That said, I’d argue that there is no such thing as a completely neutral opinion when it comes to the main point of contention: political news. It also seems that there is a misguided conception that an algorithm guarantees neutrality. After all, every algorithm was once written by a human or two, and algorithms have been shown to discriminate.

Why is this even such a big deal? Why are we up in arms when Facebook makes “editorial” decisions? Aren’t they like the decisions head editors make at other major media outlets? After all, the editors at the New York Times have to constantly decide what news, exactly, is fit to print. I have a few ideas:

  1. Huge audience. Facebook has a unique daily audience of more than a billion people and 1.65 billion monthly, making it much larger than any other media outlet anywhere in the world. More than 60% of millennials say they get their political news from Facebook.
  2. Incredible reach. In the US, 72% of adult internet users or 62% of entire adult population use Facebook and 70% visit the site daily. 82% of online adults ages 18 to 29 use Facebook. No other site comes close to those statistics, not even Twitter, that attracts only 23% of all internet users or 20% of entire adult population.
  3. User behavior on mobile. Recode did an excellent job of breaking down the importance of Facebook to media companies. For media sites, mobile now constitutes over 50% of their traffic and is still growing. That traffic is 3-4 times more likely to come from Facebook than any other source. Add to that insane amount of traffic the difference in browsing habits between mobile and desktop users that Recode identified. First, that mobile traffic doesn’t go to homepages, meaning that the “traditional channel that media companies have used to curate their content is largely ignored on mobile. Instead, the feed decides the content they see.” They also don’t click to other articles on the site once they’re on the site. Instead, “they trust the stream more than they trust the site to guide them to what’s next.” Landing pages and recirculation are “the two principal tools of curation for media companies,” and Facebook controls them on mobile. Recode called this trend “atomized content,” and it creates several challenges for media companies as it increases their reliance on what Facebook users click on, in both the Newsfeed and Trending News.
  4. Perception of impartiality. Facebook claims that Trending News items “are based on a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages you’ve liked and your location.” Four things that seem to derive from factors that users control such as previous similar interactions, location and connections. This leads to a false belief that a neutral algorithm is in control and that Facebook treats all media companies fairly.

These four reasons are why this story has captured the news cycle today, on Facebook and off. It spotlights Facebook’s large and growing influence on what content its users see. Even though I have yet to see a percentage split of traffic to media companies from Trending News (the item du jour) and Newsfeed stories, I’m not sure it matters. Both are controlled by Facebook and it doesn’t share the algorithms (or curators) behind them.  

The bottom line is that Facebook is a major factor in how people discover content and is exceptionally significant for news. Put bluntly, Facebook has incredible influence on what its 1.65 billion users see, even outside the network. In the last election, Facebook used that power to get out the vote. What will it do this election and should we, the people, worry?

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