Quick Takes: Trending on Facebook

As A Large Distributor of News in the Age of Social Media, Facebook is Obligated to Provide Unbiased and Fair News.

Earlier last week, the design and tech blog Gizmodo released allegations from a former Facebook employee that the company’s Trending News section routinely suppresses conservative news. According to the anonymous informant, the section is not generated by an automatic algorithm, but manually by so-called “news curators” who pick and choose stories from the actual numbers-based trending list. While the author of the Gizmodo article pointed out that this “curation” of news functions exactly like a traditional newsroom in that stories are subject to the institution’s biases, Facebook has the technology to move beyond these old-fashioned restrictions. In fact, if Facebook plans on acquiring legitimacy as a news source, it has an obligation to present unbiased content to its consumers.

It is becoming an undeniable fact that Facebook is where a growing number of people get their news, in a way that traditional news outlets could never match. According to a Pew Research Center survey on journalism.com, 61 percent of millennials get their political news from Facebook. Further, Wired Magazine writes that 600 million people see a news story on Facebook every day.

While major newspapers earn their legitimacy through transparency and adherence to broader guidelines of journalistic ethics, Facebook’s recent rise as a new kind of distributor means it hasn’t been shaped by these norms yet. According to NPR’s code of ethics, any conflict of personal interest, real or perceived, affects the institution’s credibility as a servant of the public. Last Tuesday, in response to a Senate GOP inquiry into these allegations of conservative news suppression, Facebook stated that it is “deeply committed to being a platform for people and perspectives of all viewpoints.” While this seems to be in line with the general ethics of journalism, the fact remains that Facebook is primarily a social media website, not a news institution, and is therefore more concerned with user experience than journalistic integrity.

One solution to this controversy would be for Facebook to replace news curators with a basic algorithm like Twitter’s, yet as the internet giant acquires an even greater monopoly over distribution, its neutrality will be even harder to maintain. With one corporation being able to dictate content, even the integrity of traditional news outlets will be compromised. We need to start taking a more critical look at Facebook’s ever-increasing power over journalism.

SOPHIE OSBORN   Senior Staff Writer


Given That News Sources Are Inherently Biased, Bias in the Curation of Facebook’s Trending News is Acceptable and Just.

With allegations that Facebook has been suppressing conservative news and promoting liberal news, some users have begun calling for reform. However, Facebook has no legal obligation to do so. News sites implicitly engage in a form of censoring and promoting certain topics and issues when their writers or editors decide which issues are worth investigating, writing about and publishing. The sheer amount of news that occurs around the world forces media organizations to filter and prioritize certain issues above others. While Facebook’s filtering may be explicit, Facebook is making the exact decisions those news media organizations have been doing since the advent of publication — deciding which news events to highlight in the Trending module.

In a media landscape that constantly perpetuates racial stereotypes, it’s good to hear that Facebook is promoting issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement. For example, Color of Change reports that local news stations in New York “exaggerate the proportion of Black people involved in crime—on average, by 24 percentage points.” Media has historically catered to a white audience and brushed aside issues pertaining to minorities. While opponents of Facebook’s filtering of the trending topics may argue that media is meant to remain impartial and unbiased, it is untrue to say that media has ever been impartial or unbiased. Every article, title and word in a publication service caters to a certain audience and raises concerns for a certain group — with the selection of which group’s voice to publish comes the exclusion of other voices. Facebook’s curation and collection of news is no more than the same bias that other news media have been exhibiting through topic selection, etc.

Media coverage has been and always will be biased. For example, the extensive media coverage of Donald Trump has no doubt propelled him to the forefront of the GOP primary, and this coverage has hindered national conversations about real issues.

If the only source of news for someone is the Trending tab that occupies a tiny corner of the screen, there are much larger problems than the filtering of a few news topics. Furthermore, the fact that individuals can “like” the news sites of various publications and read through their choices of news through their newsfeeds seems to counteract any negative criticism of the Trending tab.