The Real Problem With Facebook and the News

I got my start writing for the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin.1

What is interesting about that statement is that the appropriate follow-up question is “Which student newspaper?” For many years Wisconsin was unique in being the only university with two daily newspapers, both with five-digit print circulations.2 The older paper, The Daily Cardinal, got its start in 1892, but in 1969, as Wisconsin became ground zero for some of the most intense protests against the Vietnam War, a group of conservative students, with support from right-wing luminary William F. Buckley, resolved to counter what they saw as a pervasive liberal bias from The Daily Cardinal specifically and media generally.

Against all odds the fledgling paper survived — and it’s those odds that interest me most. To start a paper in 1969 required a not insignificant amount of money to pay for everything from desks to typewriters to, most pertinently, (renting time on) a printing press. The reality is that Wisconsin was a huge aberration, not only amongst universities but amongst cities generally: most had one paper, maybe two, and there were only three broadcast TV networks.

This was an arrangement that was certainly profitable for those who owned these geographic monopolies, but it also had a curious effect on how news was experienced in the United States: first, there was a strict wall built between the editorial and business sides of a business (a wall that hinders publishers today), and secondly, befitting their dominant market position (and, perhaps, in a careful attempt to ensure they kept it), news organizations adopted a “balanced” he-said/she-said approach to reporting that Jay Rosen has characterized as The View From Nowhere.

The problem with this approach is that no matter how scrupulous a reporter or editor may be, they are still human, constrained to a world view informed by their own limited experiences, and, as was so often the case in nearly every professional workplace in America, those experiences were shared: white, middle to upper class, often from the coasts, educated at elite universities. And so began a longstanding conservative critique of the media: that while it claims to be balanced, what was actually printed or broadcast, both in terms of selection and tone, had a liberal bias.3

Facebook Trending News

Yesterday Gizmodo published a bombshell where the headline basically says it all: Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.

Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.

Several former Facebook “news curators,” as they were known internally, also told Gizmodo that they were instructed to artificially “inject” selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion—or in some cases weren’t trending at all. The former curators, all of whom worked as contractors, also said they were directed not to include news about Facebook itself in the trending module.

In other words, Facebook’s news section operates like a traditional newsroom, reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation. Imposing human editorial values onto the lists of topics an algorithm spits out is by no means a bad thing—but it is in stark contrast to the company’s claims that the trending module simply lists “topics that have recently become popular on Facebook.”

There is a lot to unpack here, complicated by a good deal of confusion about what exactly is being alleged:

  • This story is not about the News Feed, that algorithmically-driven stream of content that is at the core of Facebook’s success. Rather, it is about the “Trending News” box of content placed in the upper right of a desktop Facebook page, or more pertinently for most Facebook users, what appears below an activated search box on mobile. It is valuable real estate in the way that all Facebook real estate is valuable, but it is of considerably less importance than what appears in the aforementioned feed. Indeed, I suspect I’m not alone in that before this controversy happened I didn’t even know it existed on mobile at all.
  • Thanks to Gizmodo’s reporting a week ago, we already knew that Facebook has a content team that chooses which trends deserve to be promoted, writes headlines for them, and also blacklists topics (most commonly because “it didn’t have at least three traditional news sources covering it”). Gizmodo added that “Those we interviewed said they didn’t see any signs that blacklisting was being abused or used inappropriately”, and suggested that the content team was being phased out as Facebook’s algorithms improved.4
  • Apparently in response to last week’s story, a former “curator” from the content team and self-identified conservative alleged that conservative topics were sometimes blacklisted; other curators disputed that claim, but all those interviewed with Gizmodo agreed that curators also had the power to “inject” stories into the trending list even if they were not, in fact, trending. Most examples were about Facebook trying to keep up with Twitter in current news, although longer-running topics like Black Lives Matter were allegedly injected as well.

I parse these details for a few reasons: first, it seems self-evident that a team of curators would, in fact, curate; Facebook’s mistake was in its willingness to let people believe “Trending News” was purely algorithmic. Second, there is very strong evidence that “Trending News” has a human component that, like the “balanced” news organizations of old, is by definition subject to bias. Third, the allegation that said bias is actively trying to suppress conservative news is the opinion of one person only (contra Gizmodo’s headline). And when you consider the make-up of the content team — “young journalists, primarily educated at Ivy League or private East Coast universities”, according to Gizmodo — it seems very possible that the second and third points are, per my observation about the conservative critique of media,5 the exact same thing.

The Rise of Alternative Media

As you might expect, the conservative media was all over these allegations; what is most striking, though, at least in the context of the founding of my old paper The Badger Herald, is that these outlets exist at all. The Internet removed the need for things like desks, typewriters, and especially printing presses, making it viable for an entire new universe of publications. And, unlike the news organizations of old who started with a geographic monopoly and worked backwards, Internet-era publications have no distribution advantage (or more pertinently, disadvantage) versus anyone else; the only way to win is to attract more users on the basis of your content.

To that end Internet publications, particularly political ones, have tended to have a very distinct point of view, whether it be Talking Points Memo on the left or Red State on the right — and those are just two examples of many, covering every part of the ideological spectrum. And why not? The truth is that all of us like to read what we already agree with, particularly when it comes to fraught issues like politics, and we’re more likely to return to a site that makes us feel good about our beliefs.

Facebook has magnified all of these trends: not only is content content, regardless of source, but it also tries to give us more of what we (literally) like, or click on, or comment on (in this case I am talking about the News Feed, not the Trending News section). If you like publications and stories that are more liberal in nature, you’ll get more liberal stories and publications in your feed; it’s the same thing with conservative stories and publications, or sports, or music, or whatever topics “drives engagement”, to use the parlance.

The result is that if you are a conservative, say, you are living in a cornucopia of conservative thought unimaginable to those students launching a new college newspaper against the odds in 1969. There are no obstacles to publishing, and Facebook actually tries its darnedest to bring you more of what you like in the name of engagement.

Polarization and Virtual Villages

Late last month Ezra Klein, who has covered the topic of polarization in American politics extensively, wrote in an overview of a 10,000 adult survey done by Pew about politics:

It’s tempting to imagine that rising political polarization is just a temporary blip and America will soon return to a calmer, friendlier political system. Don’t bet on it. Political polarization maps onto more than just politics. It’s changing where people live, what they watch, and who they see — and, in all cases, it’s changing those things in ways that lead to more political polarization, particularly among the people who are already most politically polarized…

It’s easy to see how this could work to strengthen polarization over time. As Cass Sunstein and others have shown, people become more extreme when they’re around others who share their beliefs. If liberals and conservatives end up moving to different places and surrounding themselves with others like them they’re likely to pull yet further apart. And even for those who can’t move, the internet makes it easy to settle in a virtual neighborhood with people who agree with you. Polarization is going to get a lot worse before it starts getting better.

When Klein refers to “a virtual neighborhood” he means Facebook: that is where people live, where they go in the empty spaces of their lives. It is by far the biggest traffic driver to nearly every site on the Internet, and the most-used app of every age group. And it is a company whose executives talked about engagement double-digit times on the last earnings call. It is the metric that matters, the one everything at the company is built around.

This, then, is the deep irony of this controversy: Facebook is receiving a huge amount of criticism for allegedly biasing the news via the empowerment of a team of human curators to make editorial decisions, as opposed to relying on what was previously thought to be an algorithm; it is an algorithm, though — the algorithm that powers the News Feed, with the goal of driving engagement — that is arguably doing more damage to our politics than the most biased human editor ever could.6 The fact of the matter is that, on the part of Facebook people actually see — the News Feed, not Trending News — conservatives see conservative stories, and liberals see liberal ones; the middle of the road is as hard to find as a viable business model for journalism (these things are not disconnected).

Indeed, one could make the argument that an authoritative news module from Facebook would actually be a civil benefit: at least we would all be starting from a common set of facts. What is far more damaging — and far more engaging, and thus lucrative for Facebook — is all of us in our own virtual neighborhoods of our own making, liking opinions that tell us we’re right instead of engaging with viewpoints that make us question our assumptions.

  1. I don’t usually talk about this much, in part because I’ve almost completely changed my politics since then 

  2. It’s almost unfathomable now, but print advertising was so lucrative that The Badger Herald, where I worked, actually paid a staff of 100 or so people across editorial and ad sales who put out a free 16~20 page broadsheet five days a week. As I recall, at that time The Badger Herald’s daily circulation was 16,000, and The Daily Cardinal was 10,000. Needless to say both have dramatically cut back. 

  3. Per the previous footnote, having been raised in this environment, I know from experience that the idea of a “liberal bias” to the news, whether true or not, has been unquestioned by conservatives for decades 

  4. Indeed, as the Huffington Post reported, today most people don’t even see the same topics. 

  5. And without weighing in as to whether or not it is justified 

  6. And, of course, algorithms, having been created by humans, have their own biases