With Trending Topics, Facebook Is Creating Its Own News Cycle
When people accused Facebook of political bias, the Senate demanded answers. Now it has them—12 pages of them.
In a lengthy response to lawmakers, the company says it found no evidence that anyone on its Trending Topics team suppresses conservative content, as Gizmodo alleged in a story quoting unnamed former workers.
Nevertheless, Facebook said it is making changes in response to incident, which prompted Mark Zuckerberg to meet with influential conservatives. While the specifics sound modest, they amount to a major new experiment in journalism. Facebook is effectively erasing its peripheral vision to make decisions based not on what the media is covering but what its 1.6 billion users are talking about.
The fact is, journalism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. That’s particularly true in the age of 24-hour cable news and digital media, where one story leads to another and another in an endless cycle of breaking stories, aggregated news hits, hot takes, and think pieces (like this one!). This cycle exists because journalists are forever looking over their shoulders, racing to break news even as they scramble to find fresh angles on news other journalists have broken.
For a while there, Facebook did much the same thing, giving stories appearing in at least five of 10 predetermined major outlets a boost in the Trending Topics section. Now, it’s doing away with that practice, and with its list of media outlets. Employees will no longer be allowed to “boost” content simply because it’s leading coverage on, say, The New York Times and Fox News.
That means that although Facebook employees retain the power to review stories identified by the algorithms, they will rely on what Facebook users are sharing and discussing to determine what’s deemed important news.
Making Its Own Judgments
This would seem to make Facebook the more “open” platform that conservatives demand. “The seriousness with which Facebook has treated these allegations and its desire to serve as an open platform for all viewpoints is evident and encouraging,” said John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee. “I look forward to the company’s actions meeting its public rhetoric.”
But make no mistake: Ceding news judgment to the crowd rather than other newsrooms is still an editorial choice. After all, this new practice necessarily privileges topics with an active online community behind them. And there’s no ignoring the fact that algorithms are created by people and always will have biases built in.
What’s more, because of its size, Facebook can’t simply extricate itself from the news cycle. If it chooses to ignore what other news outlets are covering in favor of the preferences and interests of its 1.6 billion users, Facebook effectively creates its own news cycle. The company is sending a message that its reach is so vast and its presence in people’s lives so constant that it no longer needs to look over its shoulder to see how the rest of the news industry is doing it. If a community as massive as Facebook’s is chattering about a story, then it must be important, whether or other outlets realize it. Facebook may be a rookie when it comes to news judgment, but it is a veteran at data mining. Now, it’s using those skills to its advantage.
Social media has long promised to dismantle the role of traditional gatekeepers, and in this election cycle especially, we’re seeing that promise fulfilled. Bernie Sanders has challenged the role of Super PACs by raising more than $200 million in small dollar donations. Donald Trump has built a media conglomerate out of angry Tweets and video dispatches on Instagram. As long as Facebook was looking to the established gatekeepers of publishing for guidance on what it should and shouldn’t show to its 1.6 billion users, it wasn’t fully keeping that promise. Now, it just might.
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