With the website Gizmodo alleging that Facebook’s team in charge of its ‘trending’ list had deliberately suppressed articles from conservative newspapers/magazines—Facebook has categorically denied it tweaks its algorithm to do any such thing—the focus has once again shifted to the role of social media in determining what people should be paying attention to, indeed even how they should react. In the past, when more people read newspapers and magazines or watched television for their news, it was accepted that news organisations would have their political leanings. As such, those looking for ‘the other side of the story’—to use Facebook’s terminology—read different newspapers or surf different channels to get an assortment of views. All this, however, changed with the news being increasingly consumed on social media like Facebook which was, at the same time, seen as being genuinely independent in the manner it curated news and views—though Facebook is not a news site, 63% of its 222 million American users view it as a news source according to a Pew Research-Knight Foundation study from 2015. If more of Facebook’s users tend to read and ‘like’ or ‘share’ liberal news as opposed to conservative news, that is one thing—in which case, the conservative news will not trend as much—but what is being alleged is deliberate suppression of a certain point of view.
Which is why, given Facebook’s increasing heft—and the same applies to other sources of news/views in today’s digital times—it is critical these curators go to extraordinary lengths to remain fair. Even if Facebook is right about its algorithm being unbiased, the actual curation is done by employees who decide whether an article is to be used or not —a piece may be rejected because it is poorly sourced and not necessarily due to the political stance. In the event, it is critical Facebook periodically bring in third parties to vet how the news/views are being treated—after all, with 1.65 billion active users, even the slightest bias on its part, even if inadvertent, can have a big effect in pushing an agenda. How big an effect is hard to say though. Given Mark Zuckerburg’s known dislike for Donald Trump, could a Facebook single-handedly ensure a Clinton victory?