In the past few weeks allegations have been made by former
disgruntled employees that senior Facebook employees were suppressing
politically conservative news stories from its social network.
The American right have since accused Facebook of adopting a
left-wing bias to trending news stories which purports to group together the
most popular stories circulating on the website.
This is in spite of the fact that the presumptive Republican
nominee for President, Donald Trump, has one of the highest
number of social media followers compared to any other politician in the
world. As things stand 7.8m have ‘liked’ his page across the globe.
Mark Zuckerburg, the founder of Facebook, has responded to
these allegations by inviting more than a dozen leading conservatives to talk
about how Facebook can be a ‘platform for all ideas’.
But this raises an important question, would it be a problem
if Facebook did adopt a bias? Why should they be different from any other form
of media outlet such as the Daily Mail or the Guardian? Most major news outlets
endorse political parties and candidates alike in the run-up to elections.
Insofar as Facebook is an outlet for news therefore, it would appear to be well
within its rights to pursue a left-wing agenda.
One might respond by pointing out that endorsing a political
party is not equivalent to suppressing stories. But this response would appear
to miss the mark. Newspaper editors often make decisions about what should and
shouldn’t appear on the pages of their publication. It all boils down to the question
of what their paying readers will want to read. To an extent, social networks
including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have already begun to do this by
switching to algorithmic news feeds in a bid to better tailor content to each
user’s individual interests.
Despite this, technology companies like Facebook purport to
be “platforms for” rather than “publishers of” news – and herein lies the
problem. When we log onto Facebook, we expect trending stories to appear
because they have been liked and shared by other users, not because they have
been selected by Facebook’s employees. By intervening in this apparently
organic process, Facebook has essentially become a publisher of news. As Mark
Stephens, a media lawyer at Howard Kennedy, said: “You have crossed the Rubicon
from platform to publisher if you exert any editorial control over news”.
Perhaps the Economist sums it up best when saying that
ultimately, Facebook’s chief concern should be about profit. By not choosing
sides, ultimately Facebook stands to benefit overall.