The standard history of the media revolution goes something like this: At midcentury, the national media landscape was monopolized by three major television networks and two major magazines. A handful of centrist media executives had tremendous power over the flow of information; it took effort to access news and commentary too far to either side of the political spectrum. Then came cable, which put pressure on the old monopolies and facilitated the rise of some insurgent political outlets. In the 1990s, thanks to the creation of the internet and the rise of blogging, subversive political materials became easier to access, and legacy media gatekeepers lost still more control over what stories were newsworthy and what opinions were acceptable. Finally, social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook completed the democratization of media—giving ordinary people a platform, disrupting the press establishment, and transferring power for regulating the flow of information from media elites to the masses.
But has it really worked out that way? A new report from Gizmodo alleges that Facebook’s “trending” function (a list of popular news items featured prominently on hundreds of millions of users’ home pages) is not generated by an impartial algorithm, but by a handful of young Facebook employees—and, moreover, that those employees systematically manipulated the results to exclude right-leaning news:
Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.
Several former Facebook “news curators,” as they were known internally, also told Gizmodo that they were instructed to artificially “inject” selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion—or in some cases weren’t trending at all. The former curators, all of whom worked as contractors, also said they were directed not to include news about Facebook itself in the trending module.
Facebook is sure to take issue with the story (it declined to comment for Gizmodo). But even if certain details are credibly called into question, the report highlights the tremendous power that internet and social media companies have achieved over the distribution of information—more than the television networks of yore could have ever dreamed of—and the ways they could tilt public opinion if they chose to do so. It may be that instead of dethroning the information gatekeepers, new media has simply transferred power from middle-aged WASPs in stuffy New York City network newsrooms to a more diverse, and younger, set of elites in posh Silicon Valley open offices. These new elites have their own set of interests and priorities—for the most part, socially liberal and meritocratic, rather than centrist and institutionalist. But they are not, by any means, “impartial,” or equally open to all viewpoints.
Still, the same competitive forces that once empowered the new media overlords will also constrain them. After all, this story was broken a news outlet that itself couldn’t have existed before the information revolution. It has over a million views, and seems likely to force Facebook to issue some sort of response. And if this type of story keeps surfacing, and a critical mass of people starts to doubt the political integrity of these companies, entrepreneurs can raise funds and build competitor platforms.
More than earlier generations of information-vetting institutions that operated in a more stable economic environment, then, Facebook will ultimately be accountable by the marketplace. But that doesn’t mean it won’t have room to maneuver. We should expect the current generation of media titans to tilt the distribution of information to reflect their worldview, just as their predecessors did before them.