Facebook Confronts Charges of Anti-Conservative Bias

But a meeting between Mark Zuckerberg and Glenn Beck is unlikely to smooth things over

Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergREUTERS/Stephen Lam — REUTERS
May 19, 2016 at 9:37 AM ET

Last week, Gizmodo published the story of an anonymous, former Facebook employee who made a bold claim: the site was suppressing conservative stories, and ‘artificially inserting’ topics into the trending feed that didn’t trend organically but were deemed important, like Black Lives Matter. Other former employees’ accounts differ, but since Facebook’s trending feed is some of the most valuable news-linking real estate on the internet, the accusations in the Gizmodo piece ignited fears of both liberal conspiracy and speech policing techno-totalitarianism. Facebook denied the charges and promised to investigate.

The company did itself no favors by initially obscuring the extent of its editorial intervention in Facebook trends. The site’s public explanation of its trending section doesn’t mention anything about human editors (but it does feature a cartoon owl with a bow tie.) The amount of human input on Facebook’s trending section was further thrown into question last week when The Guardian published Facebook’s guidelines for trending stories. Many of the guidelines would be familiar to any journalist, including a list of trustworthy outlets for sourcing, and a style guide for their often stilted headlines.

However, damage the tidal wave of scrutiny did to the big blue brand was serious enough to activate the full force of Facebook’s public relations department. Its plan? Stage a meeting between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and a number of high profile conservatives and explain it all away. On Wednesday, Zuckerberg met several prominent conservatives including Zac Moffatt, head of Mitt Romney’s 2012 digital operation, an American Enterprise Institute scholar Arthur Brooks, conservative CNN commentator S.E. Cupp, and most prominently, conspiracy theorist and conservative figurehead Glenn Beck, whose website The Blaze was among those reportedly avoided by Facebook staff.

That Zuckerberg chose to meet with Beck—a man with absolutely no journalistic authority but a significant audience—highlights a challenge facing Facebook. The company wants to be the neutral meeting ground for all the communities of the world, not a news aggregator. But in becoming the walled in e-destination for over a billion people, the world’s de facto public square has started swallowing the fourth estate. Facebook now generates more news traffic than Google. News companies optimize their offerings to be shared there. There’s nothing wrong with a private company operating a free service that gobbles up our personal information and excretes it as advertising (otherwise known as The Way We Live Now). There is a problem with ceding an essential public good, journalism, to the opaque whims of that company.

If Facebook’s algorithmically-assisted editorial process had been more transparent, could the cries of rage from the right have been avoided? Probably not. Victimization is one of the great rallying cries of online partisan media on both ends of the ideological spectrum. Still, downplaying right wing sites like The Blaze or Breitbart is sound editorial policy for Facebook trends, because they are indeed not as trustworthy as the New York Times. In a note on his Facebook page, Glenn Beck argued a case of false equivalence, writing “Facebook truly is the only communal experience we now have in some ways. We need to see what ‘the other side’ is talking about.”

Journalistic best practices dictate that sources that deny global warming and entertain conspiracy theories should not be given equal weight just because their topics are trending. These sites look to project a conservative counterbalance to a mainstream media they perceive as holding an intractable liberal bias. They mistake issues of fact for matters of political preference. Any mildly competent Facebook trending editorial policy should trust these sites less.

It’s worth noting only a piece of all news traffic routed through Facebook comes from Facebook Trending. Ironically, Beck’s plea for Facebook to show “the other side,” was right, but not how he thought. Facebook is not keeping conservative ideas from liberals on Facebook Trending as effectively as it propels the political bias echo chamber of conservatives through its entire feed. According to Pew, “About half of Facebook users who express consistently conservative views across a range of political values questions (47%) see posts on the site that align with their views all or most of the time, compared with only about a third (32%) of those who express consistently liberal views.” Facebook feeds the rightwing resentment that’s now attacking it. This will not be the last skirmish over the new civic commons.