Is Facebook institutionally biased? And why it matters (not a jot)

Dom Burch is the founder and MD of Why Social, a strategic marketing consultancy, and former senior director of marketing innovation and new revenue at Asda. Trained in PR, Dom has spent the last 17 years in a variety of comms roles at Asda, Direct Line and Green Flag including head of PR and head of social.

According to Gizmodo, Facebook deliberately manipulates which news items appear as trending topics on its platform.

Can you Adam and Eve it?

The sheer audacity of it. To think a multibillion media empire with millions of active users consuming thousands of news items a day would have the gall to pick out topics it deems interesting. It's as if Facebook thinks it knows best. It has somehow deduced what people want to read, without them knowing about it.

Anyone would think Facebook was trying to lock in an audience of users to consume even more content so it can attract even more advertising revenue.

My God, it's like the Daily Mail but on steroids. I feel used. Cheated. Manipulated. You'll forgive my sarcasm I hope.

But I have to admit to being somewhat bemused by just how surprised certain people have responded to the news that Facebook 'allegedly' routinely suppresses stories that may be of interest to some readers, but not others.

Surely one man's trending topic is simply another man's most popular article.

Next thing you'll be telling me the Top of the Pops doesn't actually chart the most popular music in the land. Or am I missing something?

Gizmodo cites several former Facebook 'news curators', as they were apparently known internally, who claim they were instructed to 'artificially inject' selected stories into the trending news section, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion or in some cases weren’t even trending at all. Whatever trending means. The language used here by Gizmodo is important. Curators, not editors. Artificially inject, not filter, edit or enhance.

The inference being Facebook is systematically demonstrating its own institutionalised bias. In this instance, against the politically conservative right, who it is discriminating against by hiding its content from millions of its users.

It comes of course at a time when the political right in America has had its fair share of media attention. Few could argue the lead nominee in the Republican presidential race has struggled to garner his fair share of the limelight.

But like the often pilloried Beeb, Facebook now finds itself defending unnamed former employees, accusing it of political bias. If we accept it is biased, which I'm not sure I do, does it really matter?

Nick Agarwal, managing director and founder of Dixon Hill Consulting, and a former BBC journalist, believes there's no such thing as bias-free news.

"Everything has a perspective, a foundation, a supposition at its core. Just because you think a computer is selecting opinion based on a 'pure' algorithm, [that] doesn't give you a free pass to stop asking whether what you see is truthful from your perspective (and inherent biases)."

It's a fair point. After all you shouldn't believe everything you read, we all know that.

But I bet most people also don't really know what an algorithm is, let alone how they work. It's funny how the mere mention of one these days conjures up a mystical waft of fairness that belies any sense of reality.

Indeed Facebook makes no apologies that its algorithm-generated news list is edited actively by humans, if nothing else to avoid regularly recurring popular topics - such as 'lunch' - always topping the charts.

But it would say that wouldn't it?

Hamish Thompson, managing director of PR consultancy Houston PR, thinks the latest claim of bias is just "standard knockabout stuff", designed to "destabilise internal workings" of Facebook and encourage promotion of a line that is more appealing to those with the complaint.

"This seems to be based entirely on the views of conservative-leaning former contractors. It's a continuum of the nonsensical stuff that is written about BBC bias.

"If I park disbelief and accept that Facebook has a set of values that leads it to promote a particular political slant, I'm not really sure that I mind anyway. It feels no different from a newspaper proprietor seeking to cast his or her light on issues of the day.

"If Facebook builds a trellis of ideas based on a specific set of values, its non-paying users are at liberty to choose what they do. I see no evidence of conservatives leaving the platform, and in any case these are suggested links on the periphery, not a set of cat videos or Instagram food snaps."

But there's also a serious point here. Gizmodo claims that stories covered by conservative outlets (like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax) that were trending, and ordinarily should have been picked up by Facebook’s algorithm, were deliberately excluded unless mainstream sites like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN covered the same stories.

Surely this type of corporate censorship risks choking freedom of speech; what happened to the US first amendment for goodness sake?

After all isn't Facebook a 'social' network at its heart? Aren't trending topics by definition meant to be what people are independently choosing to talk about?

Earlier this year a team of international researchers from several institutions claimed to have found evidence that Facebook users already engage in creating echo chambers.

By encasing themselves in environments that align with their own personal beliefs while rejecting other viewpoints, they end up reinforcing their own views.

Could manipulated trending topics be further exacerbating the phenomenon?

Thompson is not convinced: "Suspending neutrality for a minute, embracing hypocrisy, and wearing my left-of-centre politics on my sleeve, I'd say there's another factor at play. These are strange days. The US election drama and a profound choice about Britain and its role in the world create a context in which it's inconceivable to not have an opinion. When issues matter this much, the received wisdom that businesses should be neutral ought to be suspended. I'd no more expect a newspaper to down tools.

"If Facebook aren't doing their bit to fight the crazies maybe they should."

Interestingly two of the mainstream media outlets cited by Gizmodo as ones Facebook's own news team defer to as reliable sources for a story, also reported its alleged bias.

The New York Times wrote "Facebook has denied the allegations after a backlash erupted from both conservative and liberal critics."

It added: "Journalist Glenn Greenwald, hardly a conservative ally, weighed in on Twitter: 'Aside from fueling right-wing persecution, this is a key reminder of dangers of Silicon Valley controlling content'."

And Alexander Marlow, the editor-in-chief of Breitbart News, a conservative-leaning publication, said the report confirmed "what conservatives have long suspected".

Meanwhile the BBC said the claims "come weeks after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg publicly denounced the policies of likely US presidential nominee, Donald Trump".

Adding however: "That Facebook insisted Mr Zuckerberg's view did not influence what stories are given added visibility on the network." Fair and neutral to the last.

All I can say is thank goodness Facebook isn't headquartered here in the UK.

If it were, no doubt we'd already have government ministers lining up to threaten its imminent closure. No more liking of Strictly Come Dancing on Saturday nights I'm afraid.

Oh, on second thoughts...

Follow Dom on Twitter @DomBurch

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