Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Why The Facebook Scandal is a Big Deal

 

facebook“It’s not like the quiz shows are a public utility, sir. It’s entertainment. We’re not hardened criminals – we’re in show business.” — Albert Freedman from Quiz Show (1994)

In the 1950s, a scandal rocked the popular quiz show Twenty One when it was revealed that contestants were being provided, in advance, with the answers to the questions. Congressional hearings followed, and all of the major players avoided serious legal repercussions. By misleading the audience, the quiz show producers didn’t do anything illegal, but they eroded public trust in television by deceiving their audience. I find the current scandal going on with the Facebook trending newsfeed to be very similar.

In case you’re unaware, Facebook’s “Trending” section lives at the top right corner of your desktop when you access the popular social network. At various times during the day, three or more news stories appear as “trending,” meaning they are being discussed by a large group of people online at the moment. The stories vary for each user, depending on your interests, location, and history, but Facebook has always purported to be giving an unbiased snapshot of the day’s most popular topics, selected by its sophisticated algorithm.

Last week, however, we learned that — in addition to the algorithm — there is a human element that ultimately selects which stories grace the Trending newsfeed. Not surprisingly, we also learned that the bias of those who choose those stories has suppressed conservative-leaning stories, unless they’re also picked up by major news sources like The New York Times.

Since the story broke, many people have argued that this is no big deal. Facebook has no requirement to be neutral and, as a private company, it is afforded its own freedom of speech. These points are unarguably true, but are a very big deal, regardless.

Last week, David Plotz of the Slate Political Gabfest Slate Political Gabfest podcast called this story a “tempest in a teapot.” He claimed that we live in an age where there is so much choice that it shouldn’t matter if Facebook has a liberal bias. Besides, conservatives have many avenues they can take to find the news that fits their political leanings.

This misses the point entirely. It is precisely because we are drowning in choice and content that people rely on a tool like Facebook’s newsfeed to winnow the selections and give us the straight news. In an era where so many online news websites have clear and obvious bias, it is refreshing to find a list of straight headlines that can be trusted to be fair. We’ve just lost our ability to trust Facebook to do this.

This is not a trivial complaint. According to a 2015 poll by Pew Research, 63 percent of the 1.65 billion Facebook users use Facebook as a news source. It stands to reason that number is even higher today.

Not only are Facebook users getting their news from the social network, they’re having it active put in front of them when they’re busy sharing pictures with friends, catching-up with relatives, or playing silly online games. These are passive news consumers who may not be visiting one of the several political echo chambers on the Internet, which makes Facebook’s (previously undisclosed) bias so harmful.

Plotz whines that if conservatives are angry that Facebook is biased, they have many options to go find a conservative viewpoint. That is true, but only if one is motivated enough to look. Plotz is calling for a self-ghettoization of conservative news consumers. That viewpoint is not too far off from arguing that someone who is denied service at a restaurant due to their race, religion, or sexual or gender identity has plenty of other choices down the road. It’s dismissive and arrogant.

Like the quiz shows of the 1950s, Facebook is not a public utility and shouldn’t be judged as one. As Plotz argues, it is a private company and can do what it wants with its service. But it can no longer be trusted as a fair snapshot of the world around us. It has a bias and, possibly, an agenda. If one doesn’t use Facebook or thinks this is a silly story, bear in mind that two billion people spend hours on this site every day, and many then wonder why the country and the world lean left-of-center.

While it’s true that there are some outlets on the Internet where conservatives can get a right-leaning viewpoint — including this one where we gladly pay a monthly fee just to find a small corner of the world that is ours — there’s no shortage of places where we can find a liberal bias in our news.

Facebook should t be one of them.

There are 31 comments.

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  1. TKC1101 Inactive

    And people decry when the public chooses to be uninformed.

    • #1
    • May 17, 2016, at 4:57 PM PDT
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  2. Kay of MT Member

    Thank you for posting this.

    • #2
    • May 17, 2016, at 4:58 PM PDT
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  3. blank generation member Inactive

    When exactly does a company become a public utility?

    • #3
    • May 17, 2016, at 5:24 PM PDT
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  4. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Jamie Ellis: This is not a trivial complaint.

    Yes it is, just like the quiz shows.

    • #4
    • May 17, 2016, at 6:22 PM PDT
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  5. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge

    Yes, it is a big deal. No, nothing will be done about it.

    • #5
    • May 17, 2016, at 9:17 PM PDT
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  6. Freeven Member
    Freeven Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I have no issue with FB being biased as long as they are not claiming to be unbiased, which they seem to be.

    • #6
    • May 18, 2016, at 2:03 AM PDT
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  7. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Freeven:I have no issue with FB being biased as long as they are not claiming to be unbiased, which they seem to be.

    Exactly. If Congress wanted to pass a law that was, like, actually useful – they should require every media outlet, regardless of size, to prominently display its own political leanings.

    As for George Stephanopoulis (sp?), every time he appears on camera a caption should appear that reads: “Mouthpiece for the most corrupt Presidential Administration in modern history.”

    • #7
    • May 18, 2016, at 6:26 AM PDT
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  8. Guruforhire Member

    I would think its more of a consumer fraud issue. They could be misrepresenting the nature of their product.

    But most likely its just myopia due to a lack of diversity.

    • #8
    • May 18, 2016, at 8:18 AM PDT
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  9. Profile Photo Member

    The Dixie Chicks had no “right” to be played on country western stations, and conservatives have no “right” to be treated fairly on Facebook.

    Calling for Facebook to be treated like a public utility is an extremely leftist, anti-First Amendment solution.

    • #9
    • May 18, 2016, at 8:22 AM PDT
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  10. Lazy_Millennial Member

    Update: the plurality of folks under 44 who have heard about this story, heard about it from surfing Facebook:

    FacebookOnFacebook

    • #10
    • May 18, 2016, at 8:23 AM PDT
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  11. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    It’s not a big deal.

    Here’s my current Facebook homepage.

    screenshot.25

    Three conservative articles*, and one article about cats. The “Trending” box, which I’ve circled, is a tiny proportion of the screen when I’ve never, ever, bothered to look at. Until this “scandal”, I didn’t even notice that the “Trending” box existed at all.

    Teapot, meet tempest.

    (*The HuffPo one is about a Conservative Party MP, so I’ve counted it as a “conservative” article.)

    • #11
    • May 18, 2016, at 8:23 AM PDT
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  12. Guruforhire Member

    Misthiocracy:Three conservative articles, and one article about cats. The “Trending” box, which I’ve circled, is a tiny proportion of the screen when I’ve never, ever, bothered to look at. Until this “scandal”, I didn’t even notice that the “Trending” box existed at all.

    Teapot, meet tempest.

    Nobody is more vigilant than a guard immediately after a break in.

    What kind of backwoods hilly billy Luddite would tolerate a globally curated news feed, from a TECH company.

    Seriously, why isn’t there an individually tailored newsfeed based upon my preferences and profile?

    That’s the real scandal here.

    • #12
    • May 18, 2016, at 8:25 AM PDT
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  13. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Guruforhire: They could be misrepresenting the nature of their product.

    How, exactly? Has some consumer protection bureaucrat codified a legal definition of the word “trending”?

    • #13
    • May 18, 2016, at 8:26 AM PDT
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  14. Guruforhire Member

    Misthiocracy:

    Guruforhire: They could be misrepresenting the nature of their product.

    How, exactly? Has some consumer protection bureaucrat codified a legal definition of the word “trending”?

    Depends on if they were positioning it as an empirical thing. But that is why I used “could.”

    It would seem to me that trending is “this is what is hot right now” and not this is what is hot and what a collection of underemployed hipsters thinks is important.

    At some point Mayo really is oil and eggs whipped into an emulsion, and no your eggless product is not mayo.

    At some point a distinction really does becomes a difference. Or we lose all ability to communicate.

    • #14
    • May 18, 2016, at 8:28 AM PDT
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  15. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Guruforhire: Seriously, why isn’t there an individually tailored newsfeed based upon my preferences and profile?

    You mean, like Google News?

    • #15
    • May 18, 2016, at 8:31 AM PDT
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  16. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Jamie Ellis: This is not a trivial complaint. According to a 2015 poll by Pew Research, 63 percent of the 1.65 billion Facebook users use Facebook as a news source. It stands to reason that number is even higher today.

    That poll might be misleading. When participants were asked if they get news from Facebook, was a distinction made between the site’s Trending feed and articles/videos posted to users’ timelines (“walls”) by family and friends?

    So long as Facebook does not deny users the freedom to post whatever they want to their own profile pages or those of associates, it does not control the spread of news.

    It’s only a guess, but I’d bet that most “news” consumed via Facebook is accessed on profile pages rather than by the Trending feed.

    • #16
    • May 18, 2016, at 8:50 AM PDT
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  17. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge

    This does bring up an interesting question. How much of the “gay agenda” or lefty causes are only successful because of the covert actions of the social media companies? SSM really took off in the era of Facebook. The transgender bathroom thing is going to happen overnight before anybody knew there was an issue because of it. When SSM was an issue I knew very few people that thought it should be done and the few that were ok with it seemed to be more resigned or did not care. On Facebook it seemed everybody was for it and was on the verge of burning down the country if the SSM thing did not go through NOW. If FaceBook is just your people why was there such a big difference?

    In the IT industry there is a joke that there is actually more government workers working in the FaceBook building than FaceBook employees. I do not know if this is true or not but it does make one wonder if there is something going on.

    • #17
    • May 18, 2016, at 9:03 AM PDT
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  18. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Jamie,

    I agree with you that the Facebook scandal is big news. However, there are multiple levels to this issue so let’s get deeper into it.

    First, Facebook has 1.6 billion users so if the elephant in the room has hangnail it is a major problem. We need to remember what Facebook is. It is a utility that Facebook provides in basic form for free. Anyone can simply sign on and have their own page. They can post personal information, keep in contact with relatives & friends, post a business page and keep in contact with customers. It is ideal for small organizations churches, political campaigns etc.. to keep in contact with members & volunteers etc. By simply following the path of “friends” of other users one can go door to door leafleting without leaflets or leaving the house.

    Facebook is more than this. The largest corporations and government agencies on down have Facebook pages. These are informational and two-way communicational. The end result is that Facebook can be used as a search engine for information. Facebook being used as a search engine makes it the second largest search engine ranked behind only Google.

    cont.

    • #18
    • May 18, 2016, at 9:05 AM PDT
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  19. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    cont. from #18

    The entire Facebook approach is content created bottom up. Facebook users create content. Facebook itself is just there to provide the utility. Trending on Facebook is not like other Newsfeeds. The implied meaning is that current users of Facebook are clicking on these stories in particular.

    The fact that Facebook is using an editorial policy to bias the content of the trending stories is important as this means that at this one level Facebook is being deceptive to its users. Facebook could choose to rename the trending stories to “current news” and simply admit that the facebook editors are choosing the stories. This would solve the deceptive advertising complaint. Of course, Facebook doesn’t want to do this. Its success rests on maintaining the trust of its users.

    This brings us beyond the initial not very exciting problem with “trending stories”. The larger problem is a realistic community standard for political discourse. This is considerably more insidious and something that should be brought out into the light. When there is a complaint that a page violates “community standards” on facebook a human not an algorithm checks into it. How that problem is judged and whether the page is removed by Facebook is a very important question. If ordinary right of center opinion is classified as outside of community standards this is a much more serious bias. If obviously dangerous messaging of fanatic groups such as terrorist recruiters is allowed to stay this is another extremely dangerous bias.

    These are very real concerns. As there are 1.6 billion users of Facebook I would say that inquiry is justified. Properly, in a free society, it is coming from the Commerce Committee and not FCC. We want to maintain free speech, not restrict it. Zuckerberg knows that his business is built on a free and open use of his product by an ordinary user that trusts Facebook. We’ll see how far he will go to maintain that.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #19
    • May 18, 2016, at 9:06 AM PDT
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  20. Profile Photo Member

    I really look forward to Democrats using this precedent to regulate talk radio the next time they control Congress.

    • #20
    • May 18, 2016, at 9:09 AM PDT
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  21. MLH Inactive
    MLH

    BD:I really look forward to Democrats using this precedent to regulate talk radio the next time they control Congress.

    That could never happen in the USA. Get real.

    • #21
    • May 18, 2016, at 9:09 AM PDT
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  22. Lazy_Millennial Member

    MLH:

    BD:I really look forward to Democrats using this precedent to regulate talk radio the next time they control Congress.

    That could never happen in the USA. Get real.

    It was the law from 1949-1987

    • #22
    • May 18, 2016, at 9:20 AM PDT
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  23. MLH Inactive
    MLH

    Lazy_Millennial:

    MLH:

    BD:I really look forward to Democrats using this precedent to regulate talk radio the next time they control Congress.

    That could never happen in the USA. Get real.

    It was the law from 1949-1987

    I forgot my sarcasm quote marks.

    • #23
    • May 18, 2016, at 9:21 AM PDT
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  24. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Aaron Miller: So long as Facebook does not deny users the freedom to post whatever they want to their own profile pages or those of associates, it does not control the spread of news.

    Well, it depends on how you define “control”. Facebook makes quite a bit of revenue by selling preferential access to people’s newsfeeds. Companies pay to have their articles bumped ahead of your friends and family.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    • #24
    • May 18, 2016, at 9:33 AM PDT
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  25. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge

    Misthiocracy:

    Aaron Miller: So long as Facebook does not deny users the freedom to post whatever they want to their own profile pages or those of associates, it does not control the spread of news.

    Well, it depends on how you define “control”. Facebook makes quite a bit of revenue by selling preferential access to people’s newsfeeds. Companies pay to have their articles bumped ahead of your friends and family.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    I think this is the Louder with Crowder issue. I gather that FaceBook took money from them for this access but instead did not give the access, removed content for various undefined reasons, etc. When Crowder documented the issue and point it out, Facebook has been unresponsive to the point of claiming they did not take Crowders money even with paper trails proving they did. Crowder is filing some sort of legal procedure to get more info at the moment.

    • #25
    • May 18, 2016, at 9:45 AM PDT
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  26. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge

    This is no bigger (or smaller) a deal than any other media company showing its bias, intentionally or unintentionally, through its editorial decisions. If Facebook does indeed have an anticonservative bias, I don’t see how that’s any different from Fox News (“Fair and Balanced”) having a conservative bias.

    It seems to me that what people are realizing here is not that Facebook has a bias, but rather that Facebook has editorial control over what you see. Anyone who didn’t know that already hasn’t been paying attention.

    • #26
    • May 18, 2016, at 9:53 AM PDT
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  27. Stephen P. Bennet Inactive
    Stephen P. Bennet

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.:It seems to me that what people are realizing here is not that Facebook has a bias, but rather that Facebook has editorial control over what you see. Anyone who didn’t know that already hasn’t been paying attention.

    The control over what you see is Facebook exercising its bias. It’s much worse than other media companies with biased coverage. The reason is because up until last week, we assumed an algorithm was blindly giving us the day’s biggest stories. When the human element willfully suppresses some stories, the millions of people who are exposed to the trending topics (and not the other stories) will begin to think that those stories they haven’t seen aren’t a big deal. It’s how you get attitudes about the IRS or Benghazi where liberals can say “that’s only a story on Fox News”. They’re right, that only Fox talks about certain stories, and then those stories stay in a black hole thanks to Facebook and similar news aggragators ignoring them.

    • #27
    • May 18, 2016, at 10:58 AM PDT
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  28. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge

    Jamie Ellis:

    The control over what you see is Facebook exercising its bias.

    My point is that this controversy suggests that most people thought that Facebook programmatically showed you all content without any intervention. That has never been the case. Facebook has always actively controlled what you see, based on all kinds of algorithms.

    They have never pretended to be a common carrier. And they have never been particularly transparent about how they choose what to share. The fact that their own ideological biases would color their editorial choices strikes me as obvious. Any edited or curated content will reflect the biases of the humans who control it.

    • #28
    • May 18, 2016, at 12:25 PM PDT
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  29. Al Sparks Thatcher

    Jamie Ellis: In the 1950s, a scandal rocked the popular quiz show Twenty One when it was revealed that contestants were being provided, in advance, with the answers to the questions. Congressional hearings followed, and all of the major players avoided serious legal repercussions.

    I read about the scandal. My sense was that people at the time paid more attention to it than people today are to the Facebook scandal. I just visited the Drudge Report page, and searched for ‘face’. No hits. I went to the cnn.com homepage, and did the same thing. No joy.

    I do see something on the Fox News homepage.

    Twenty One was a very popular show precisely because they were falsely staging it during a less cynical era with respect to television, and before that radio. And Facebook, while ubiquitous, isn’t a shared experience the way television was from the 1950’s to the 1990’s.

    Nor is Facebook mostly about politics. My sense is that people are getting tired of talking politics on Facebook. I stopped about a year ago. Not enough people care.

    I see, from the Fox News headline, that Facebook is taking the allegations seriously, probably because they realize how fragile their popularity is (think myspace.com). I predict that in another 1-2 months, this incident will be mostly forgotten.

    As for me, I use Twitter as my news aggregator. I never saw Facebook as very suited for that purpose.

    • #29
    • May 18, 2016, at 10:12 PM PDT
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  30. Al Sparks Thatcher

    One other thing. The Twenty One scandal was not about politics, and while politicians did get involved, it was in a bipartisan way, another sign of those times.

    Charles Van Doren, who was the contestant at the center of the scandal, was ashamed about the whole thing, and didn’t publicly talk about it for decades (he’s still alive at age 90).

    Today, we allow our politicians to blatantly lie. While politicians engaged in deceptions were fairly common, up until the Bill Clinton era, they would actually act ashamed if they were caught lying. We have mainstream politicians that no longer seem to care, and are no longer held accountable.

    So Facebook has been dishonest about being a neutral arbiter? I care in one sense, but in another I’m just numb and I can’t get excited. I certainly don’t think that there will be a massive sea change over this.

    • #30
    • May 18, 2016, at 10:36 PM PDT
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