By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Facebook to conservatives: Drop dead

If Facebook wanted to call its trending news section “Editors’ Picks” or some such thing, then it wouldn’t matter if the stories reflected liberal leanings, conservative leanings, or whatever. In fact, it is simply called “Trending.” And it’s not illogical for us to believe that it’s an accurate reflection of news that Facebook users are sharing.

Now the tech site Gizmodo is reporting that Facebook editors have actually manipulated the trending-news list to suppress stories that are favorable to conservatives or critical of Facebook. Michael Nunez reports that a source told him “that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.”

Let’s be clear about what was going on. This wasn’t the New York Times putting together a front page that reflects the liberal biases of its editors. This was much more like the phone company deciding to blocks calls from people and organizations if it doesn’t like their views.

It’s bad enough that we don’t understand the algorithms that go into deciding what we see in the news feed. Trending news is supposed to be transparent and on the level. I can’t say I’m surprised to learn that it isn’t, but I’m horrified nevertheless.

Gizmodo reports that no one from Facebook would comment on its story. So we don’t know whether the company admits this took place in the past or, if it is, if it’s still going on.

Update: Facebook has issued a statement in which it says that it’s taking the Gizmodo allegations “very seriously.”

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  1. How come you’re in the present tense (“are actually manipulating the trending-news list”) and the Gizmodo story is in the past tense (“Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section”, etc.)?

    Is this behavior still going on? What does Zuckerberg say and do you believe him?

    • Dan Kennedy

      Steve: I did a little editing to clarify those points.

  2. Mike Pardee

    In the first place, it’s worrisome that Facebook is the main source of news for a lot of its users. But that FB tailors its news menu based on political leanings is chilling. Con world always trots out the tired canard of the MSM being leftist. The Gizmodo piece helps validate that.

  3. For some reason, I’d thought those Facebook Trending News stories were also shown to users based on an algorithm… Curious about what that block would look like without that manipulation.

    Not sure I entirely agree with the phone company analogy; in most cases, it’s still harder to switch carriers than it is news aggregators.

    • Dan Kennedy

      dnamkrane, I guess I would have thought that “trending” was similar to a news site’s “most emailed” list. I assume that the Boston Globe‘s most-emailed stories are the ones that get emailed the most. My phone analogy, imperfect as it is, is based on the idea that Facebook is in part a media company and in part something more closely resembling a utility — a dumb pipe. I wish Facebook were a dumb pipe, although I imagine it might take more work getting our news feed just the way we want it than we have time for.

  4. It’s the fact of Facebook that made me think it was based on an algorithm; that it’s not makes me feel a *little* better about the manipulation, but overall it’s still hovering close to sleazy.

    I’m being a little argumentative critiquing the phone analogy; there’s always Google or Yahoo News (!), but I appreciate that hundreds of millions of Americans are using Facebook as their default news reader. Will this be enough to make people look elsewhere?

  5. Interestingly, is a bit more skeptical about the veracity of this story, which they believe is heavy on speculation and light on documentable facts.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Donna, Snopes is giving this a very narrow reading. It’s only partly about not posting stuff from dubious news sources like Breitbart and Red State. The more serious allegation is that Facebook’s editors inserted some news topics into Trending and did not include some others — and that we thought this was all done automatically based on an actual measurement of user activity, not the whim of some editor. And Facebook says it’s very concerned, and is presumably investigating.

  6. I would not be even a little surprised if this turns out to be true though. Zuck never promised to be a journalistic, fair and balanced, haven of integrity. His people already skew views on what’s supposed to be important in your personal life in your feed, and in your memories of the past year and so on. His organization, like Google, strongly works — at the cost of many millions of dollars — to influence the global idea of what privacy should mean to the public online and by extension offline.

    Why would you be even slightly surprised that they would be arrogant enough to influence politics or morality? You’ve already consigned your privacy on the site and across the internet to these folks, and they do their best to influence your lifestyle decisions in leisure, purchasing, and so many other aspects of your life. Do you think that they think politics is different by that much from consumer preference?

    As a former “Democratic operative” I can tell you flat out that the division between campaign metrics and marketing science is wafer thin, since the advent of the minicomputer. That neuromarketing for Zynga and neuromarketing for a candidate are uncomfortably similar, and if you’ve ever been on a list like OFA, you’ve been subject to it. Transmarketing for a presidential campaign is an approximately two year reality engineering project where politicos convince the public that we are electing a president, when in reality we are sending 5000 to 35,000 appointees in to DC in a peaceful insurgency, this miraculous democratic transition of government that we do about every four years for this multi-trillion dollar, incredibly powerful government, that is hardly about the president him- or herself at all anymore, but about this entire executive branch and increasingly the 4th branch (IC/DHS) running the executive by tail.

    I am shocked, I tell you, shocked, to find big data — the heart of our marketing — influencing elections.

    Tell me another one. Oh yes, “Do no evil” Google is donating streaming to Trump. How about that one?

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