Facebook has announced changes to the way it runs its Trending Topics feed, following an internal investigation that looked into political bias at the social networking site. While the company said it found no evidence of bias after reports accusing Facebook of routinely suppressing conservative news from its trending news section, Facebook said there will be more training for staff and the feed will no longer depend on a list of news organizations to validate subjects.
Facebook (FB) may be closing the chapter on its liberal bias controversy, but it’s worth taking a look at why so many were upset in the first place. After all, Facebook is a business operation first and foremost – one that thrives on the number of users it has and the data it collects from, not from serving some larger or more noble greater good, its own rhetoric notwithstanding. Were we really so naïve as to think that Facebook was somehow miraculously a bias-free news source? But more on that later. For now, here’s why the controversy, perhaps, some people seem to hit so many nerves.
First, a key concern for many is transparency or the lack thereof. As Emily Bell wrote in March for Columbia Journalism Review, “social media and platform companies took over what publishers couldn’t have built even if they wanted to. Now the news is filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable.” And then there is the mysterious human role – the one Facebook’s news curators play in shaping those algorithms and culling through the output to determine what trends.
Second, others fear the vast power and immense size of Facebook and argue that the social media behemoth should be regulated more like a common carrier, akin to telephone companies that cannot censor the messages. Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. John Thune (R – S.D.), the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, vaguely intimated as much in a letter to Zuckerberg, writing that “with over a billion daily active users on average, Facebook has enormous influence on users’ perceptions of current events, including political perspectives.” Thune demanded that Zuckerberg answer five questions regarding how it chooses trending topics, but on Monday Facebook’s general counsel responded with a lengthy letter stating that the company’s “investigation revealed no systematic political bias” and that “rates of ‘boosting,’ ‘blacklisting,’ and accepting topics have been virtually identical for liberal and conservative topics.”
For all the handwringing over Facebook’s trending topics, we really just need to get over it. Objectivity in journalism is a myth and always has been. Subjective decisions are made everyday in traditional newsrooms across the country about which stories to cover, how many inches those stories merit, where those stories are placed – on the front page or buried on A14 – and who gets to write them.
The journalists chosen to write them, in turn, pick the sources they seek out for comments and quotations – typically one or two from the left and one or two from the right, each with predictable opinions, to create the illusion of balance – and decide whose quotes get more play and whose gets shorter shrift. Journalists choose the very words that make up a story, ordering and arranging them. And despite the rituals of objectivity, as Gaye Tuchman aptly called them back in 1972, that journalists engage in, the end product is a subjective creation.
So why did some somehow expect Facebook to be any different? Because machines using algorithms were supposedly more neutral than humans in identifying trends? Humans created those algorithms, and it is natural for Facebook, as a business, to want as many people to stay tuned – to use an antiquated legacy media phrase – as possible to its site. Did we truly not expect to find a man behind the curtain at the great and powerful Facebook, pulling the strings of the Oz of the news business? Gatekeepers – humans and/or machines – have forever been involved in the flow of information to the public.
The profound irony over the trending topics fracas is that, in the Internet era, we have so many different choices and options from which to obtain news and yet, for the moment, we are so obsessed with and pre-occupied by one social network. The U.S. used to have only three major television networks – and just two before ABC came along – and one, two or maybe three local newspapers to rely on for news. Add to that a couple of powerful weekly news magazines that came to the mailbox and that was really about it.
Rather than call for government inquiries about how Facebook chooses what topics trend and thereby creep closer to a First Amendment fight, people who find bias in Facebook’s choices can and should seek out their news from other sources. We cannot, after all, legislate bias out of the news business.
And there’s another reason to, in Frozen-like fashion, let it go. Do we really want or need social networks telling us what is important and what is trending? The very notion of “trending” itself is troublesome, as it reflects much larger problems with news delivery in this country. It mirrors, albeit on much more rapid timetable, the short news attention span we have and the exceedingly quick news cycles cable channels provide in an effort to keep eyeballs. An issue arises, it garners attention and then it rapidly fades away. The word “trending” suggests anything but a sustained and deliberate discussion of important issues; instead, it embodies fleeting ephemeralness of the kind that is not needed, especially during this election year.
We need to acknowledge that bias – be it by man or machine – is inherent in news and, finally, we must seek out as many different and diverse sources as possible to learn what’s going on in the world and to find out what truly matters to us, not to a news curator or an algorithm.
Clay Calvert is director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida.