Mark Zuckerberg is meeting high-profile US conservatives today after claims that Facebook staff suppressed news stories. Is Facebook just a neutral platform for sharing information?
A contributor to Fox News. A slain former US Navy Seal. The Republican governor of the state of Wisconsin.
According to an anonymous former Facebook employee, staff at the social network are preventing users from hearing about these people.
Last week, several curators of content told the technology website Gizmodo that staff on the social network’s ‘trending’ news section ‘routinely’ prevented stories with a conservative slant from appearing on users’ pages.
‘Popular conservative topics wouldn’t trend,’ said one. ‘Either the curator didn’t recognise the topic or they had a bias. I believe it had a chilling effect.’
Stories from conservative websites, they added, were only included if the subject was also being covered by liberal or mainstream outlets. One source said staff artificially drove serious news stories to the top of the list: ‘we would get yelled at if a story was all over Twitter and not on Facebook’. Another said they promoted the controversial racial campaign group Black Lives Matter and hid criticism of Facebook.
Facebook is now highly influential. It reaches 1.65 billionmonthly users worldwide, and internet news outlets are rapidly replacing traditional ones.
The company says it is a neutral platform for sharing information, with ‘rigorous guidelines to ensure consistency and neutrality’. Gizmodo says ‘there is no evidence that Facebook management mandated or was even aware of any political bias at work’.
But the alleged behaviour is reminiscent of traditional newspapers — which openly advocate editorial lines. And in Facebook’s case, such a stance is more opaque: a study in 2015 suggested that more than 60% of their users did not realise algorithms were curating their content at all.
One former curator says: ‘It wasn’t trending news at all. It was an opinion.’ The social network’s founder has publicly expressedliberal views on several occasions and the ‘trending’ news staff had mostly graduated from liberal universities.
Is Facebook the neutral platform it claims to be? Or do we now have — without even realising it — the world’s largest ever publisher, with its own agenda?
The company says Facebook is just a medium which people use to share information. It has gained so many users because it appeals to people across the political spectrum. Its mission is simply to connect people and get them sharing ideas — no matter what they are.
Neutrality is a pipe dream, say critics. Facebook is responsible for the content published on it, and it has its own identity and values. It is inherently liberal: its mission statement says the company wants to make the world ‘open and connected’ and to give people ‘the power to share’.