By Lena Williams – First conservatives accused Facebook of bias in how it chooses the “trending topics” that appear on the popular social media’s website.
Now, a group of black newspaper publishers said Facebook’s “inscrutable choices” about stories it displays on trending topics is a threat to the very existence of the black press.
It’s just a little box on the upper right side of Facebook’s newsfeed, a tap on the search bar on apps and a small part of what attracts Facebook’s 1.7 billion active users to the site. But the trending topics list, a mix of hard news, celebrity gossip and videos, has sparked major controversy over Facebook’s First Amendment right to choose what it sees fit to print, as well as the larger issues of free speech, media bias and the growing influence of social media.
Editors and executives at Facebook deny the allegations. They point to “rigorous guidelines” put in place in 2014 when the trending section was launched that “do not permit the suppression of political perspectives,” nor the “prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another.”
That does little to assuage the concerns of their critics.
In May, after reports surfaced that Facebook staff members had intentionally suppressed articles from conservative sources, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee demanded that Facebook explain how it handles news articles in its trending list and threatened to hold hearings to get to the bottom of the matter.
In June, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade organization representing the black press, called Facebook “the latest threat to its existence,” ominously suggesting that their readers “are at the mercy of powers unheard and unseen as never before.”
In an op-ed piece, Denise Rolark-Barnes, chair of the NNPA, and Benjamin Chavis, NNPA’s president and CEO, called on regulators to look into Facebook’s editorial and promotion practices.
“Like many other publishers who have recently written on Facebook’s growing power over the media and what Americans read, we too are alarmed with one company having such dominance in news aggregation,” they wrote. “It’s time regulators took a hard look at Facebook and its news aggregation and promotion practices in an effort to bring such much needed transparency to the new media king.”
The NNPA believes government intervention is necessary because, well, in the words of Chavis and Rolark-Barnes: “The democratization of the media could be on a collision course with decidedly anti-democratic and arbitrary forces. Think of the proverbial tree that falls silently in the forest because no one is there to hear it. Will Facebook have the power to allow entire forests to fall without much notice?”
Facebook? A threat to our democratic way of life? A foreboding dark media force that will gobble of the black press and must be stopped by government regulators unless…unless what exactly?
I’m a black journalist. I know first-hand as a black American that there has been, and continues to be, a certain level of bias in how the mass media covers the African- American community, what stories they choose to publish or broadcast about us and the slant many of those stories are given.
As a journalist, I know we all have our own personal prejudices and biases but we should not and must not allow them to get in the way of how we report the news.
For newspaper publishers to call on the government to intervene and “regulate” what stories a social medium chooses to highlight goes against everything we stand for and believe as members of the Fourth Estate.
The government has already intervened, making demands on Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to account for his company’s actions, threatening to haul him before Congress for hearings, demanding Facebook open an investigation into its internal news operations.
Who’s next? The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN or Fox News?
Senator John Thune, the Republican chair of the committee that oversees technology, communications and Internet issues, sent a letter to Zuckerberg in May asking for a face-to-face meeting.
Thune wanted to know, among other things, what steps Facebook was taking to investigate the allegations that were first reported by Gizmodo, a tech website. He also wanted to question Zuckerberg directly about whether Facebook editors had in fact manipulated the content seen by its regular users.
“If there’s any level of subjectivity associated with it, or if, as reports have suggested that there might have been an attempt to suppress conservative stories or keep them from trending and get other stories out there, I think it’s important,” Thune told reporters. “That’s just a matter of transparency and honesty, and there shouldn’t be any attempt to mislead the American public.”
That’s rich, coming from a member of Congress, which isn’t exactly known as a body of open government and transparency, or honesty for that matter.
Thune’s indignation is misplaced. He wants the American public to believe that he has their interests at heart. But I see this as yet another attempt to control the free flow of information and speech.
“The notion of Congress looking into or investigating how a medium of communication decides what to say threatens on its face First Amendment rights,” said Floyd Abrams, a leading First Amendment lawyer.
Clint Wilson II, a professor emeritus at Howard University’s School of Communications, told Journal-isms, a news column on diversity and media issues, that he too saw First Amendment problems in the NNPA’s approach to Facebook.
“Unless the information it publishes runs afoul of the usual First Amendment restrictions concerning libel, disregard for truth, obscenity, etc, the suggestion that NNPA or any external agency can impose arbitrary standards re what Facebook may or may not publish is problematic,” said Wilson. “A more successful legal tactic would be to persuade Facebook’s advertisers and clients that a major social flaw exists in the exclusion of certain minority viewpoints and exert economic pressure to bring about the desired change in content.”
In response to Thune’s threats, Facebook launched an internal investigation that found no evidence of manipulation. Zuckerberg held a high-profile meeting with conservatives. A company spokesman said the company continually reviews its trending topics to look for improvements and will keep looking into any questions about the news feature.
All this has to have Facebook users scratching their heads.
The social network was started as a website for college-age students to exchange messages, post profiles and status updates with friends, share videos and notify each other about changes in their lives. It was never a news outlet, even though 63 percent of its users now get their news from the site.
As a website, Facebook, like bloggers and other free-thinking Americans who post their opinions and thoughts to social networks like Twitter and Instagram, enjoy the same rights and privileges under the First Amendment as professional journalists and should be afforded similar respect and unfettered treatment.