Facebook’s denials that it routinely suppressed trending conservative news stories and reports from right-leaning media, as reported by Gizmodo, are lame, as are its supposed “rigorous guidelines” the company insists “do not permit the suppression of political perspectives.”
What’s more, the social-media giant doesn’t seem to understand just how serious a threat it poses to the political process.
To recap: After interviewing several former so-called “news curators,” responsible for Facebook’s trending news section, Gizmodo says that the social-media platform decided to ignore some stories about conservative topics that had actually generated a lot of discussion among users.
One curator kept a list: Omitted stories, he said, included CPAC, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and, in a weirdly ironic twist, bias by the Internal Revenue Service against conservative groups. Some curators reportedly considered conservative media outlets insufficiently credible, including their news only after more left-leaning or centrist publications also picked up the story.
Such allegations are especially disturbing given Facebook’s outsized role in news distribution. With 1.65 billion active monthly users as of May 1, its audience is enormous. A recent Pew study, looking at news consumption on smartphones, discovered that Facebook sends more readers to news sites than any other social-media platform.
Facebook also has exceptional potential to influence the politics of millennials, a group that just surpassed Baby Boomers as America’s biggest generation. Sixty-one percent of adults under 34 consume political news from Facebook, according to Pew.
Narrowing their exposure to diverse opinions and perspectives changes the way they view the world — all the more outrageous given the suppression of free speech on college campuses.
Then again, Gizmodo’s Facebook revelations are only the latest in a series of ethically questionable choices by the social-media giant.
A Radiolab reporter last year asked Facebook scientists about the “statistical likelihood that I have been a guinea pig” in one of the company’s hush-hush social experiments. The employee’s answer, met with laughs from other staffers: “I believe 100 percent.”
Some of these experiments are intensely personal; for instance, Facebook discovered that users exposed to more positive content adopted a sunnier tone, too.
But some have huge public implications, as Radiolab noted. After examining the data for 61 million American users, Facebook concluded that by simply adding an “I’m voting” button, it could boost ballot-box turnout by 2 percent. Imagine how that could affect a close race, should Facebook executives selectively apply this feature in pursuit of a political agenda.
Politicians have responded with fury to the allegations about Facebook’s discrimination against conservative news reports and media. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted about how “Facebook must answer for conservative censorship,” while the Senate Commerce Committee furiously inked a letter demanding Zuckerberg answer allegations of bias.
But the answer to Facebook bias isn’t more federal intervention, if we’ve learned anything from the United States’ 62-year experiment with the Fairness Doctrine, which forced the airwaves to give equal time to all political viewpoints that wanted it. The chair of the Federal Communications Commission ultimately abolished it, concluding that the policy “holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas.”
As always, the answer is more free speech and more free thought.
And, as it happens, the Gizmodo Facebook story ran just as Americans were already grappling with whether corporate media has played an outsized role in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. In the past year, Donald Trump garnered more free media time than Kim Kardashian. So public frustration with media manipulation is already high.
Facebook responded to the Gizmodo allegations with a denial full of ambiguous language, primed for critical thinkers to further question and probe. Consumers and journalists are in the perfect place to apply pressure.
If Facebook doesn’t budge, we can always take to Twitter.
Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow with the Steamboat Institute and Independent Women’s Forum.