Earlier this month, Facebook came under fire when it was accused of manipulating the types of topics and news sources that appeared in its “Trending Topics” section, available in the upper-right hand corner of the site for most users. In these accusations, the platform was accused of artificially selecting against conservative topics and conservative news sources, thereby manipulating the masses in favor of more liberal mindsets. Facebook immediately responded with a non-committal statement of having “neutrality guidelines,” but has since followed up with a sterner position that there was no biased manipulation of presented topics.
The case is interesting for Facebook users, but there are some broader ramifications of this incident for social media and tech communities everywhere.
Facebook’s Denial and Follow-Up
In its original response, Facebook insisted that there are “rigorous guidelines that do not permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or the suppression of political perspectives.” Mark Zuckerberg went on to deny any selection bias, though his elucidation of how Trending Topics are selected complicates matters. Zuckerberg is now planning to meet with a group of 15 prominent conservative leaders
The Trending Topics Process
The “Trending Topics” section was originally assumed to be automated, but Facebook recently revealed that the truth is a little more complicated than that. In reality, the Trending Topics algorithm will “grab” certain topics that many people are talking about and pull them into a pool, which human curators then monitor, edit, and publish in the Trending Topics section. These editors have the power to choose which publishers each topic links to, as well as the wording of these headlines. This gives them the power to select against certain topics or certain publishers, and though they may not intend to do so, it may become a habit over time.
Selection Processes in Other Areas
The latest controversy has focused on Facebook’s Trending Topics section specifically, but let’s not forget that Facebook influences what we see in other areas as well. Our newsfeeds are populated specifically with stories the platform deems to be most relevant; there was controversy over this a few years back when the platform admitted to manipulating user emotions in a controlled psychological experiment to see if sad newsfeed stories eventually led to sadder status updates. It’s clear that Facebook has a great deal of control in what we see in a number of areas, not just Trending Topics, and it’s had this control for a while.
But Facebook isn’t alone, of course. Social media platforms are constantly updating and refining their newsfeed and topic suggestion algorithms, intended to improve user experience. But these algorithms could artificially, either by intention or by chance, select for or against certain types of topics. Even social media platforms aren’t alone—think of how much power Google has to order ranks for news stories and results for general queries. News outlets, too, must select which headlines make it to the front page, and it’s important not to forget that.
Three Important Takeaways
With greater knowledge of the actual controversy surrounding the bias accusations, the knowledge of how Trending Topics actually work, and the tech world as a whole, it’s important to walk away with these three conclusions:
1 -- Major tech players have far more power than we’d like to admit. Facebook has more than 1 billion monthly active users, and Google sees more than 1 trillion searches per year. Users are basing their lives off what they see on these platforms, so if there is a bias, it’s certainly an impactful one.
2 -- Every news source is inherently biased. No matter how many rules and stipulations you make in an effort to preserve neutrality, it’s impossible to create a platform that’s inherently unbiased. That’s because humans are naturally biased creatures, and no matter how much you try to automate things through algorithms, you’ll still need human supervision (or at least creation) as a part of the process.
3 -- The bias problems will get worse before they get better. Knowing this, companies may strive for even less biased versions of their top tech products or publication platforms, but the problem will probably get worse before it gets better. More platforms will rely on automation, more users will group toward the most popular platforms around today, and a mutual circle of influence may prevent new platforms or new ideas from catching on.
Our tech-heavy world is inherently biased, and there’s no denying this. Even the automatic processes that shape what we see and read were once created by biased human beings. No matter how much we try to compensate for it, or how much we try to run away from it, this is going to be inherent in our world. All we can do is balance it the best we can.
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