As of April 2016 Facebook boasted 1.65 billion monthly users. That’s one in every five people alive today regularly logging onto the site. The saying goes ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ but is this true in the case of Facebook?
Last month tech blog Gizmodo broke a story about Facebook’s trending news section and the alleged manipulation of trends by employees or “news curators”.
According to a former journalist who worked for the tech giant measures were taken to subdue naturally trending conservative topics such as that of an upcoming right-wing CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) gathering.
As well as preventing certain subjects from appearing in the trending section Gizmodo reports that news curators were ordered to inject non-trending stories into the feed. “Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said a former curator talking to blog.
Facebook Trending hasn’t arrived in the Irish market yet but imagine it as a section sitting in the right hand corner of your news feed displaying topics allegedly based on ‘a number of factors including: engagement, timeliness, pages you’ve liked and your location.’ This description from the Facebook Help Centre appears to leave out ‘and content we have specifically chosen for you based on our personal biases and agenda.’
Naturally this news sparked much debate. Vox wrote a piece titled Facebook has more influence over Americans than any media company in history addressing the issue that much smaller media corporations are regulated by governments to control their influence and prevent the abuse of power meanwhile Facebook slips between the cracks.
Researcher Tarleton Gillespie writing for the Social Media Collective Research Blog argues that the responsibility lies with the user to query what we see online rather than with government bodies to prevent the publication of mistruths. Gillespie calls for us to question algorithms and not to blindly presume that human bias is totally off the table.
“Algorithms are in fact full of people and the decisions they make. When we let ourselves believe that they’re not, we let everyone — Zuckerberg, his software engineers, regulators, and the rest of us — off the hook for actually thinking out how they should work, leaving us all unprepared when they end up in the tall grass of public contention.”
In January 2015 Facebook released a statement on its Newsroom homepage titled News Feed FYI: Showing Fewer Hoaxes. The article stated, “We’ve heard from people that they want to see fewer stories that are hoaxes, or misleading news. Today’s update to News Feed reduces the distribution of posts that people have reported as hoaxes.”
What Facebook is refering to here, as Buzzfeed put it, is the fake news epidemic that was and is sweeping the social media platform with stories “showing up everywhere from your gullible friend’s timeline to the pages of the New York Times.” Fake news sites like the National Report, which is allegedly worth $300 billion dollars, are making their monely soley from generating share-inducing, inaccurate click-bait and seeding links out across Facebook via a number of different channels.
Undoubtedly it is good to know that when it comes to fake news the platform is fighting to protect its users as much as possible. However it is worrying to acknowledge the double standards at play here; an outside force will not be allowed to influence us with incorrect information yet from recent reports it seems like Facebook has no problem once it is the influencer.
“Today’s frustration with Facebook, focused for the moment on the role their news curators might have played in producing these Trends, is really a discomfort with the power Facebook seems to exert — a kind of power that’s hard to put a finger on, a kind of power that our traditional vocabulary fails to capture.”
Gillespie touches on here what I believe to be mass opinion. Facebook is a powerful machine, one that is growing too quickly for our judicial system to keep up with. For now we are on our own. It is up to us to filter what appears in our news feeds and to research the truth through means that we deem trustworthy. Facebook may have the power but the responsibility is ours.