Facebook’s news suppression misleads users

Screenshot: Facebook

Facebook is synonymous with nagging family, bragging friends and viral memes, but we rarely associate the social networking site with news.

On an everyday basis, I log into Facebook and am immediately inundated: friends’ shameless selfies posted to fish Facebook’s superficial depths for validation, a stranger’s outpouring of raw emotion for their significant other with the kind of grammar mistakes most of us could’ve fixed at the tender age of 11 and pictures of my cousin’s hastily-planned wedding in Cancun.

But increasingly, I’m presented with a different kind of information overload. Millennials now use Facebook for much more than the occasional — or daily — stalking session. According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of people ages 20 to 35 get their political news from Facebook.

We see the two-word headline in Facebook’s “trending topics” sidebar and the small summary that follows and our interest is piqued. We follow the link and read up on President Barack Obama changing high school bathroom policies or the Alaskan moose someone caught on camera playing with wind chimes on their porch.

While Facebook claims that the trending list is the product of an objective algorithm that detects what topics users are popularly discussing as well as breaking events, the news you are reading is a product of something else — something Facebook never disclosed.

Bias.

Earlier this month, Gizmodo, a design and technology blog from the Gawker Media network, released a story based on interviews with former Facebook “news curators” — employees who shape the trending list on Facebook. Once the company’s algorithm specifies which topics are trending, the curators select the stories that will end up on the final list. 

One of the individuals Gizmodo interviewed reported that Facebook officials routinely suppressed news of interest to conservative readers even when such news was trending. Instead, the curator said, Facebook encouraged curators to “inject” topics of interest to them or that aligned with a progressive agenda, like stories about the Black Lives Matter movement.

When the vast majority of millennials get their news from a social media website that deliberately deep-sixes news outside its specific agenda, young people suffer a grave injustice.

They are unknowingly exposed to an ideological tilt that wasn’t accompanied with a forewarning, but was presented as objective, nonpartisan truth. Facebook is following the trend of mass media and universities across the nation, further reinforcing a lack of tolerance, dialogue and critical reasoning.

While Mark Zuckerberg may continue to claim that Facebook does not permit reviewers to add or suppress political perspectives, the former news curator kept notes of stories that higher-ups prevented from running.

Some of the topics and outlets the former curator jotted down in the log include: former IRS official Lois Lerner, whom Republicans accused of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; the Breitbart and the Drudge Report and information about a former Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle, who was murdered in 2013.

The former news curator went on to say the suppression of certain topics “had a chilling effect on conservative news.”

The chilling effect extends beyond Facebook. On college campuses, and generally in mass media, young people are time and time again made to believe that conservative news is either short-sighted or doesn’t exist at all. Universities and colleges often don’t facilitate discussion between opposing viewpoints, subsequently silencing conservative voices while at the same time touting diversity and inclusivity.

Many classes in American universities are taught with a bias, but journalism courses often don’t try and hide it. Even journalism and media classes focus on how “social change” comes from only the left.

Burlington College in Vermont offers a course called “Historical Activism and Social Movement” and New York University offers a course called “Media Activism and Social Movements.” Both courses neglect to account for widespread social movements like the Tea Party, which garnered a following when it called for fiscal responsibility and less governmental intervention.

Sure, Facebook is a private entity, unlike the many state universities that subtly promote progressive agendas. It can push the starry-eyed and romanticized homilies of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders until the politically correct bovines of nonspecified genders come home.

But, Mr. Zuckerberg, if you truly are the bleeding heart, paragon of virtue you have marketed yourself to be, and if you are stepping into an industry that’s supposed to present fact — rather than opinion — you need to understand the disservice you’re doing to impressionable consumers.

More than one billion people across the world use Facebook and are subject to the news it chooses to highlight. This means that whether we like it or not, Facebook controls discussions.

It’s no secret conservatives are a minority amongst young people  — according to pollster Frank Luntz, 45 percent of young people in 2016 say they would vote for Sanders if the election were held today and 19 percent said they would vote for Hillary Clinton. 10 percent said they would cast their vote for Donald Trump. The remaining three candidates at the time didn’t even reach double digits.

With such an overwhelming population of young liberals, Facebook is providing little more than an echo chamber where millennials can read the same angles they’ve been retweeting, sharing and talking about all day. When Facebook does report news from the right, it’s likely about which marginalized demographic Donald Trump chose to disparage that day for the umpteenth time, sending a distorted message of what real conservative news looks like.

If Facebook considers itself a leading company that promotes innovation, open access to information and the ability to broaden the social experience, it should seek to expand young users’ capacity to consider and independently evaluate a wide range of issues.

Zuckerberg took to Facebook Thursday evening to defend the company in light of the allegations, saying it stands for “giving everyone a voice” and he plans to talk with 15 leading conservatives in coming weeks including Donald Trump’s advisor Barry Bennett, Glenn Beck and Fox News’ Dana Perino.

Talking with conservatives isn’t a plan, it’s a misguided distraction and a not-so-creative tactic to appear unbiased.

Biased information manifests itself in several ways, including the absence of tolerance for conservative beliefs and causes, the chilling of fellow peers’ speech via threats or public humiliation and a general narrow-mindedness from a site that is supposed to be a socially enriching experience.

Limiting the public discourse by ignoring “unpopular” viewpoints on Facebook is simply fueling the political polarization we see happening in colleges across the country.

Conservative news is news too, Zuckerberg, and if you’re expanding into the world of journalism, it’s your job to uphold its standards and present stories objectively to your users.

Marlo Safi  primarily writes about public policy and politics.

Write to her at mes26@pitt.edu

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