The eyes of the nation have been on Washington the past few days as United States senators grilled Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg about his information sharing policies. The social media giant that has taken up residence on the phones and in the lives of the vast majority of Americans is being accused of not only a massive data breach but of suppression of beliefs that don’t align with the personal beliefs of the CEO.
Because Facebook has access to the majority of voting Americans almost every day, it’s potential to influence is almost astronomical. With many smaller news organizations using it as the vehicle for their information, it was devastating to many when their reach was shut down by an algorithm.
These fears were compounded when it was discovered that the internet giant had an actual data breach. While that might have been an accident, according to the Washington Post, some employees of the company revealed that they actually do intentionally curate what the viewers see on a day to day basis:
“…Gizmodo quotes several former curators suggesting that conservative news stories would be booted from the automatically generated list of trending stories for two reasons. One was if the story came from a conservative-leaning site, such as Breitbart.com or Newsmax.com, in which case curators were told to find the same story on a mainstream media site, if possible. The other was if the curator didn’t want to include the story or didn’t recognize the story as important. It’s hard to know the extent to which the latter judgments took place, but one of the former curators — a conservative — told Gizmodo, ‘I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news.’
That’s problematic, for obvious reasons. (Gizmodo notes that it’s not clear whether this is still happening, because the trending news algorithm is constantly being tweaked, and that it’s not clear whether the liberal news was similarly affected.) The bigger question is the extent to which Facebook overlays another filter on top of what you see — and the extent to which that can influence political decisions.
We already knew (even if we sometimes forget) that there are a lot of layers of filtration that occur before you see anything on Facebook. There’s the filtering that you yourself do, picking friends, clicking links, posting stuff. There’s the main Facebook algorithm that puts things in your feed. That’s based in large part on what you tell the system you like. Two years ago, journalist Mat Honan liked everything in his feed, telling Facebook, in short, that he liked everything. Within 48 hours, his feed was a garbage dump. His human curation had failed.
So this manipulation of the trending news is another layer. But it’s significant in part because it’s the most obvious manifestation of what Facebook wants you to see. Facebook slips ads in your feed and highlights some posts over others, but the trending news is Facebook itself sharing content with you. And as Gizmodo reports, its employees are deliberate in doing so. For example:
In other instances, curators would inject a story — even if it wasn’t being widely discussed on Facebook — because it was deemed important for making the network look like a place where people talked about hard news. ‘People stopped caring about Syria,’ one former curator said. ‘[And] if it wasn’t trending on Facebook, it would make Facebook look bad.’
Facebook was also criticized for not having a trending topic on the Black Lives Matter movement, one former curator claimed. So they “injected” it into the feed. ‘This particular injection is especially noteworthy because the #BlackLivesMatter movement originated on Facebook, and the ensuing media coverage of the movement often noted its powerful social media presence,’ Gizmodo’s Michael Nuñez writes. Black Lives Matter existed without Facebook, but this injection could only have helped.
In April, Nuñez reported that Facebook employees were advocating for chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to explain during a company meeting what responsibility Facebook had to block Donald Trump’s candidacy. (The question doesn’t appear to have been answered.) If it wanted to block Trump from appearing on the site, an expert told Nuñez, it was within its legal rights to do so, just as it can block other forms of content. The report resulted in assurances from the company that it would never interfere with people’s voting choices. “We as a company are neutral,” a spokesman told The Hill, “we have not and will not use our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote.”
In April, Nuñez reported that Facebook employees were advocating for chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to explain during a company meeting what responsibility Facebook had to block Donald Trump’s candidacy. (The question doesn’t appear to have been answered.) If it wanted to block Trump from appearing on the site, an expert told Nuñez, it was within its legal rights to do so, just as it can block other forms of content. The report resulted in assurances from the company that it would never interfere with people’s voting choices. ‘We as a company are neutral,’ a spokesman told The Hill, ‘we have not and will not use our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote.’
That’s the issue at the heart of the question over what Facebook is suppressing or promoting. This is a media company at a scale that’s without precedent in the world. Nearly three-quarters of American adults who use the Internet use Facebook. And those adults didn’t see stories about political topics in their trending news feeds because a human who works at Facebook decided not to show it.”
Despite multiple reports of censorship, Facebook, along with their CEO attempted to maintain that they weren’t intentionally silencing anyone. They consistently attempt to defend their algorithm by saying that they are just using it to filter out what people don’t want to see.
There is an argument to be made that people will be more worried about something because it becomes more prevalent in their lives. Many people joke about something being “facebook official.” In other words, maybe our high-speed world asks us to absorb so many things that unless we see something multiple times, we just don’t pay any attention to it. If that’s the case, it’s possible that Facebook is using their power to make sure we don’t pay attention to anything that they don’t want us to really think about.