So What If Facebook Is Biased?

Everyone’s in an uproar over a report of bias in Facebook’s “trending topics” section. Gizmodo cited former contractors of the social network, who said they witnessed suppression of certain trending conservative news stories and sources, among other things.

Facebook denied the claims. Meanwhile John Thune, chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, is apparently still concerned that Facebook may be misleading the public into thinking that trending topics are determined by neutral algorithms, not potentially biased human curators.

Thune sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking a whole bunch of questions about his company’s “trending topics” operation and practices. Facebook issued a statement saying that its guidelines require “team members to allow all points of view,” but it would investigate the claims and update its methods as necessary.

Here’s my question: What if there is bias? Is that a news flash? Really? Gee, biased news. I mean, who knew?

Not to be overly cynical, but seriously folks: Is there anyone reading this who doesn’t agree with me that all news is biased? Who doesn’t see, as I do, that journalistic integrity in online reporting is an oxymoron? Who gets all their news from one source? Who doesn’t realize that all news aggregation requires human curators?

OK, maybe that last one is news to some of you, so allow me to explain: If you try to use algorithms alone to determine trending news, you end up with mostly redundant and nonsensical topics that are unfit for human consumption. Now you know. 

Even if it is news, is this really a topic that a Senate committee should be spending its time on? And is that committee genuinely concerned about Facebook compromising its mission “to make the world more open and connected,” as Thune wrote, or something perhaps a bit more self-serving or biased? After all, he is a Republican.

Thune points to Facebook’s “enormous influence” as a news source. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal cites a Pew Research survey showing that 63% of Facebook users get news from the site and 40% say it’s an important news source. Considering the company dominates social media with 1.6 billion active users, that is concerning.

But most of that “news” isn’t coming from the “trending topics” section in question (a barely noticeable little box off to the right) but from users’ customized news feeds that run down the center of their home page. And that’s a mixture of all sorts of content from friends, groups and pages they follow. While Facebook does play a role in what’s presented, there are no allegations of bias there, at least not yet.

Besides, have you seen the kind of ludicrous nonsense other aggregators like Google, Yahoo and LinkedIn Pulse feed you? This is not an exact science, by any stretch.

I might also point out that this entire hullabaloo is based on anonymous sources in one article on Gizmodo, a site that features classic reporting like “This Is the Most Beautiful View of Poop You’re Ever Going to See,” “You Really Shouldn’t Snack on Urinal Cakes” and “What’s the Best Way to Tie Your Shoes?” Pulitzer material it’s not.

In a world gone media crazy 24/7, trust me when I tell you that Facebook’s trending topics section is not what you or Congress should be worried about.

I’d be far more concerned that genuine journalism is being replaced by advertising click bait and popular content, much of which is entirely fact-free.

I’d be concerned that practically every media outlet from the New Yorker and Inc. to Forbes and Fortune hyped Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes as an entrepreneurial icon, when her supposedly breakthrough blood testing technology had never been vetted by peer-reviewed medical journals, investors, or anyone else, for that matter.

And I’d be concerned that a presidential candidate who may be within spitting distance of the White House, Bernie Sanders, recently suggested that “corporate media” is a real problem in America and, if he were President, he would like to find a way for the Democratic Party to fund a mainstream TV station. Oh yes he did.

A state sanctioned news channel. Freedom of the press, RIP. Now that’s something to worry about, folks. Not Facebook.