Facebook finds news is more complicated than algorithms

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17 May 2016 | 0

Niall Kitson portraitWould you prefer your news to be personal or human? Strange question, but it’s one Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is going to have to field tomorrow when he meets a dozen of America’s conservative thought leaders to explain how the social network’s trending topics panel works.

According to Facebook, trending stories are selected on the basis of the level of engagement around a story, its timeliness, location and pages already liked by a user to ensure personal relevance and overall newsworthiness. It’s a clever algorithm designed to deliver impartial, personal results. Machine learning at its finest. Or not, as a report on Gizmodo on 3 May revealed.

According to Gizmodo, what Facebook doesn’t tell you about is its small team of ‘news curators’ – journalists using their common sense to ensure the breaking stories of the day don’t go neglected. Sure, the ranking factors act as a guide but the final call of what appears and from which websites it appears on is made by a group of contractors working in the basement of the social network’s New York office – a human-controlled process.

The report claims the team works in hot-house conditions, stripping away narrative voice, re-writing headlines to make them sound as impersonal as possible and linking out to a small cohort of brand-appropriate titles. If you’re having problems finding content from conservative firebrand Glen Beck’s Blaze network or Drudge Report, that’s probably not a coincidence – according to staff stories from the right were regularly dropped leading to a “chilling effect” making voices from the right harder to find. Some would call this censorship.

Zuckerberg released a statement on 13 May disputing the article, saying Facebook adhered to “rigorous guidelines that do not permit the prioritisation of one viewpoint over another or the suppression of political perspectives”.

But here’s the thing: There could be plenty of reasons why right wing content is not getting the airing some feel it deserves and poor working conditions could be just one part of the problem.

Yes, the selection of topics and sources by a team from a specific demographic working to a loose set of guidelines doesn’t sound very Facebook. The largest content distributor on the planet prides itself on the ability to automate everything from guessing which people you know but have yet to connect with, to programmatic advertising. Showing up an apparently automated feature to be little more than a subterranean typing pool must be deeply embarrassing.

Accuracy
But here’s the thing: what if the editors are actually accurate? Does the Internet’s politics actually skew to the left of centre? As Francois Pierre Guillaume said: “If you are not a liberal when you are in your 20s you have no heart, if you are not a conservative in your 40s, you have no head” – put a bunch of intellectuals under 35 in charge of your news cycle then you’re bound to get bias, even more so if a chunk of your user base shares those values.

If Facebook’s members have values then their news recommendations will reflect them and larger groups will have their values represented to a greater degree. This leads to confirmation bias, creating the impression that Facebook not only delivers material that reflects your point of view, it endorses it. Welcome to Facebook not as platform, but as publisher, with all the ethical demands that come with it.

I have no problem with human editors. In fact, I prefer services that have been vetted at some stage. Spotify and Apple do it with music, Netflix has taken to writing blurbs with more personality and Mubi keeps a small rotating catalogue it thinks will resonate with subscribers. Facebook’s scale forces it to think bigger and remove the subjective in favour of a more vanilla delivery – this is anathema to some US news organisations that have given up on impartiality to play to certain demographics for commercial reasons. It’s unfortunate but this is what media obsession with ratings and Web traffic has produced and it needs readers/viewers to be aware that outlets come with strings attached. Attempting to cut those strings would be especially damaging to titles that rely on outspoken comment – which automatically puts US conservatives on the back foot.

How human is your news? More so than you’d think, but that’s not a flaw, it’s a feature.

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