Progressive and independent journalists are raising grave concerns this week about Facebook's plan to fashion itself as an arbiter of what news outlets should be deemed "trustworthy"—arguing that the social media giant's new proposal will punish non-corporate news sources and journalists offering left-leaning news analysis that it finds to be "polarizing."
Richard Kim, executive editor of The Nation magazine, was among those reacting critically to the social media giant's announcement on Monday:
So @facebook & Zuckerberg say they will rank news sites based on trustworthiness, with a goal to reduce "polarization" Depending on how it is implemented, could be disastrous for opinion journalism & the key role it plays in democracy. https://t.co/0tvB4m2CpW
— Richard Kim (@RichardKimNYC) May 2, 2018
In his keynote speech at Facebook's annual developer conference on Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed that the company has already begun surveying its two billion users about the news sources they recognize and rely on the most, to determine which media outlets are "broadly trusted." The results of the data-gathering will determine how widely news outlets are featured on user's news feeds.
"We put [that data] into the system, and it is acting as a boost or a suppression, and we're going to dial up the intensity of that over time," Zuckerberg told media executives after the speech. "We feel like we have a responsibility to further [break] down polarization and find common ground."
The CEO's meeting with the media included representatives from some of the largest news organizations in the country, including the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Atlantic Media, CNN, and News Corp., according to the Huffington Post.
Translation: private company with billions at stake in political process creates secret, opaque process for ranking news orgs that cover it, and which depend on it for traffic. And we are supposed to trust their approach is neutral and free of conflicts https://t.co/FJuSeW5zrm
— Richard Tofel (@dicktofel) May 2, 2018
It also follows months of criticism of Facebook after the alleged spread of misinformation on the platform during the 2016 presidential campaign.
"It's not useful if someone's just kind of repeating the same thing and attempting to polarize or drive people to the extremes," Zuckerberg explained to a crowd of developers regarding how the company has begun to decide which news sources are credible.
But while combating the spread of misinformation is a worthy cause, argued some critics, Zuckerberg—CEO of a powerful corporation and one of the world's wealthiest individuals—should not use survey results to support his role as a self-styled "gatekeeper" of trustworthy and untrustworthy news sources.
Here's my nuanced position on this: Fake news is bad, Zuckerberg acting as the world's ultimate gatekeeper is bad, users deciding which news orgs are 'trustworthy' is bad, Facebook is bad https://t.co/NQHwAXEdh6
— Trevor Timm (@trevortimm) May 2, 2018
As Julianne Tveten wrote at In These Times last fall, Facebook began flagging so-called "fake news" after the election, along with other major tech companies like Google, which pledged in April 2017 to "surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content" in its search engine results, as Facebook is now doing with its news feed.
"These adjustments, however, haven't stifled propaganda. On the contrary, they may have stifled dissent," Tveten wrote, noting that left-leaning news sources have seen their readership plummet since the companies implemented those changes.
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Common Dreams is one non-profit and progressive news outlet that has seen significant drops in traffic since Google and Facebook began changing algorithms and talking openly about their new attempts to control the kind of news content users see. According to internal data and Google Analytics, traffic to Common Dreams from Google searches fell by 34 percent after the powerful search giant unveiled its new search protocol in April 2017.
"There's a lot we still don't understand about how we're being impacted by the kinds of changes these companies are making, but it's very unsettling to see this kind of power wielded by corporate interests who seem so detached from the mission of sites like ours and the role in general that progressive media and independent journalism play in this society," said Jon Queally, Common Dreams managing editor.
Other critics noted that while corporate outlets like MSNBC, the Washington Post, and the New York Times will likely be proclaimed "broadly trusted" in Zuckerberg's data-collection endeavor, these "established" news sources have a rich and dubious history of misleading and damaging reporting.
Who the hell is @facebook to decide what news is trustworthy.what news isn't? If that's the case, I assume they'll be ranking @nytimes @washingtonpost @cnn @associatedpress @msnbc near bottom since they were instrumental in launching us into Iraq War? https://t.co/iz4qUFjzEr
— Jordan (@JordanChariton) May 2, 2018
FB will be the arbiter of what is true and not true. Reminder all media pushed Bush's lie on WMDs w very little questioning. This severely hurts independent media and helps prop up the establishment big name outlets. https://t.co/L6N23bAUNm
— Drogon (@drogon_dracarys) May 2, 2018
Facebook's announcement comes as former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and the Heritage Foundation are both working with the company to investigate whether it has harbored liberal biases and advise Facebook on "the best way to work with [conservative] groups moving forward," according to Axios.
While the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is also participating in an audit and working with Facebook to ensure that minority voices are represented on the platform, there was no indication that the impact on left-leaning independent media outlets was also being examined.
As ThinkProgress reported on Wednesday, "Facebook's bias study, according to Facebook, will not include any liberals...Facebook did not answer questions from ThinkProgress about why liberals were excluded from the process or whether this incentivizes conservatives to continue to make false charges of bias."
The tech giant's decision to work hand-in-hand with right-wingers like Kyl, while failing to afford left-leaning sites a similar opportunity, exposes "how ill-equipped Facebook is to deal with modern conservatism," wrote Libby Watson at Splinter News.
After Gizmodo reported in 2016 on the suppression of conservative media outlets like Breitbart News in Facebook's "trending topics" feature, Watson wrote, the right latched on to the notion that the company was biased against right-wing reporting:
At Mark Zuckerberg's congressional testimony, Ted Cruz brought up the Gizmodo story and then proceeded to rattle off an insane laundry list of persecution fantasy grievances: They "shut down the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day page," blocked "two dozen Catholic pages," and, of course, banned [conservative video bloggers] Diamond and Silk. Imagine. The problem with this criticism is that there is a reason why Breitbart and Newsmax shouldn't feature in any "news" section: They’re not trustworthy or legitimate news sources...
Facebook is still, two years later, struggling to counter baseless and hysterical whining about censorship from the right, to the extent that it's now employing a conservative lobbyist to "investigate" claims of bias at the company.
"The conservative movement has done a remarkable job over the last half century to bellow and bully its way into having its most ridiculous and reality-divorced concerns taken seriously," Watson continued. "It lies about and distorts everything: about tax cuts, about Benghazi and [Hillary Clinton's] emails, about immigration, about healthcare, about Diamond and Silk. The further Facebook descends down the path of letting that screaming white face of faux outrage dictate how they run their platform, the harder it's going to be for them to get away from them."