Facebook Follies


Remember when this seemed cool and new?

Scandal!  Outrage!  Algorithm!  The plot thickens for Facebook, which has recently been accused of having a deliberate liberal bias in determining what stories show up in its news feed.  Today, leaked documents show that news items are actually prioritized by editors and not by an algorithm as Facebook had previously claimed, lending credence to the allegations of liberal bias in Facebook’s “news” “coverage.”

From The Guardian:

The documents, given to the Guardian, come amid growing concerns over how Facebook decides what is news for its users. This week the company was accused of an editorial bias against conservative news organizations, prompting calls for a congressional inquiry from the US Senate commerce committee chair, John Thune.

The boilerplate about its news operations provided to customers by the company suggests that much of its news gathering is determined by machines: “The topics you see are based on a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages you’ve liked and your location,” says a page devoted to the question “How does Facebook determine what topics are trending?”

But the documents show that the company relies heavily on the intervention of a small editorial team to determine what makes its “trending module” headlines – the list of news topics that shows up on the side of the browser window on Facebook’s desktop version. The company backed away from a pure-algorithm approach in 2014 after criticism that it had not included enough coverage of unrest inFerguson, Missouri, in users’ feeds.

Naturally, Republican members of Congress — that bastion of reasoned discourse and liberty, that eternal sources of civic pride — are in the process of setting up hearings on potential political bias at Facebook.  The won’t hold confirmation hearings on Judge Garland, they almost never pass a budget on time, but damned if Facebook can decide what news stories it wants to highlight!

Not that we shouldn’t care about Facebook’s approach to news.  The sad, sorry, pathetic truth is that most Millennials get their political news from Facebook.  So what Facebook determines to be newsworthy actually matters, and if there is a clear bias in their method of determining what news stories people should see is a matter of public concern.  But the simple fact is Congress shouldn’t be getting involved.  That’s for no reason other than it’s not their goddamn job to tell a private company what news to report.

Conservatives were justifiably bothered by the allegations that the IRS was politically-motivated in its auditing of right-wing nonprofit groups.  So shouldn’t they be equally upset when they hear that Republicans in Congress will be scrutinizing Facebook for having an alleged liberal slant?

There’s no reason to treat Facebook’s decisions about “tending” news topics differently from any newspaper’s editorial decision making process.  What’s next, Democrats holding hearings on bias at Fox News?  Wouldn’t that equate to an indirect form of state-run media?  That’s not funny because it isn’t a joke.

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