Revelations that Facebook may have regularly "blacklisted" conservative stories from the platform's "trending" news section was met with outrage on Monday from journalists across the political spectrum who found the company's alleged abuse of power "disturbing" and potentially dangerous.
After speaking with several former "news curators," Gizmodo technology editor Michael Nunez reported Monday that the social media platform routinely censored 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."
The contracted employees also said 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," and were specifically asked to exclude "news about Facebook itself in the trending module."
"I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news," said one former curator, who was kept anonymous but identified by Gizmodo as "politically conservative."
This practice of "imposing human editorial values," as Nunez put it, flies in the face of the company's claim that the section is simply displaying "topics that have recently become popular on Facebook."
Indeed, Nunez notes, Facebook's trending bar "constitutes some of the most powerful real estate on the internet and helps dictate what news Facebook’s users—167 million in the U.S. alone—are reading at any given moment."
Right-wing media was predictably incensed after the news broke. But for journalists who fall elsewhere on the political spectrum, the revelations were an alarm bell warning against the social media network's growing power—and desire—to influence.
"Aside from fueling right-wing persecution, this is a key reminder of dangers of Silicon Valley controlling content," Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote on Twitter.
Similarly, Guardian national security reporter Spencer Ackermann said, "You don't have to be a conservative to find this chilling & gross, as Facebook increasingly rules the news business."
San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Troy Wolverton agreed. "Whatever your political views, this is disturbing. Facebook needs to stop this—or be more transparent about it," Wolverton wrote.
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Freedom of the Press Foundation executive director Trevor Timm raised similar concerns last month after an internal poll asked if Facebook should "help prevent President Trump in 2017."
At the time, Timm wrote, "the extraordinary ability that the social network has to manipulate millions of people with just a tweak to its algorithm is a serious cause for concern."
To be sure, many corporations, including broadcasters and media organisations, have used their vast power to influence elections in all sorts of ways in the past: whether it’s through money, advertising, editorials, or simply the way they present the news. But at no time has one company held so much influence over a large swath of the population – 40% of all news traffic now originates from Facebook – while also having the ability to make changes invisibly.
But one organisation having the means to tilt elections one way or another a dangerous innovation. Once started, it would be hard to control. In this specific case, a majority of the public might approve of the results. But do we really want future elections around the world to be decided by the political persuasions of Mark Zuckerberg, or the faceless engineers that control what pops up in your news feed?
Responding to Monday's news, Timm added: "Those dismissing Facebook's suppression as 'oh, so they're just like other media orgs?' are really missing the point."
"The first half of the digital news revolution that began in the mid-1990s was defined by disaggregation," Dan Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, wrote recently.
"The second half has been defined by re-aggregation at the hands of Facebook. And that trend is only accelerating," he continued. "Mark Zuckerberg is not just the unimaginably wealthy founder and chief executive of the world’s largest social network. He also exercises enormous control [...] over how we receive the information we need to govern ourselves in a democratic society. That is an unsettling reality, to say the least."
For its part, Facebook sidestepped the allegations, telling reporters that they have "rigorous guidelines" that "do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another."