After news of how Facebook compiles its "Trending" stories broke, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune sent Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a letter in which he tries to probe deeply into Facebook editorial processes. Zuckerberg needs to put on his publisher hat and decline. Thune has no more business making such demands of Zuckerberg than he does making them of New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger. Thune's letter is an affront to all First Amendment speakers.
Facebook Needs To Stand Up For 1st Amend.
It was a good week for the sometimes unappreciated media person who has to make countless decisions on what’s news and what’s not. On newspapers, they are called editors. In TV, they’re producers, and, in much of new media, curators.
This week they receive some recognition and a confirmation that the tech wizards hadn’t yet figure out how to replace them with a computer as they have so many other jobs.
Under duress, Facebook fessed up that it relied on such people — I’ll call them editors because I’m basically a print guy — to make sure that its Trending news section actually delivers a solid, comprehensive news service to the hundreds of millions who check it out each day.
Prior to this week, Facebook had encouraged the world to believe that the feed was simply generated by as algorithm, a set of computer instructions that plucked out stories based on what Facebook users were talking about and sharing.
But some enterprising reporter at Gizmodo actually found some Facebook editors who revealed the social medium’s practice was to supplement what the algorithm spewed out with other stories they thought were important. Like all good editors, they also had the task of cutting out some of the nonsense and redundancy.
Based on the interviews, the Gizmodo story also alleged that the editors were slanting the news to the left. In other words, they were editing the news in a way that made liberals look good and conservatives look bad.
That produced a conservative backlash that culminated with Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune demanding answers.
At first, Facebook dismissed the suggestion that there was a human element to its news gathering, but then yesterday The Guardian posted what amounts to guidelines for Facebook editors under the headline, “Facebook News Selection is in Hands of Editors Not Algorithms, Documents Show.”
The Guardian said the guidelines were leaked, but apparently Facebook wanted them out to help defuse the charges of political bias. They show that the editors have procedures in place to keep story selection about the political fray.
The Guardian, which was first to post the guidelines, said they are similar to the the AP Stylebook. They strike me as far more than that. They are detailed instructions that restrict the choices of the editors, assuming, of course, that they are paying attention to them.
After the Guardian document dump, Facebook VP Justin Osofsky, acknowledged on a company blog that its “reviewers” — that is, editors — were among the “checks and balances … to help surface the most important popular stories.”
Osofsky’s principal concern was not the revelation that Facebook had thinking editors, but that they were politically biased. “We have at no time sought to weight any one viewpoint over another, and in fact our guidelines are designed with the intent to make sure we do not do so.”
Now that Facebook has admitted that it has editors, it’s time that it start acting as a publisher. It does that by refusing to play along with Sen. Thune.
In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Thune says: “If Facebook presents its Trending Topics as the result of a neutral, objective algorithm, but it is in fact subjective and filtered to support or suppress particular viewpoints, Facebook’s assertions that it maintains a ‘platform for people and perspectives from across the spectrum’ misleads the public.”
That’s a fair point, and now that he has made it, he needs to back off.
And Zuckerberg needs to ignore the rest of Thune’s letter — a series of questions and requests — in which he tries to probe deeply into Facebook editorial processes. For instance, he asks Facebook provide a list of all news stories removed or injected by editors into the Trending Topics since January 2014. Ridiculous.
Thune has no more business making such demands of Zuckerberg than he does making them of New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger.
Thune’s letter is an affront to all First Amendment speakers.
In a blog post, Zuckerberg said he will invite “leading conservatives and people from across the political spectrum to talk with me about this and share their points of view. I want to have a direct conversation about what Facebook stands for and how we can be sure our platform stays as open as possible.”
I suppose that is OK. Let the conservatives talk themselves out. But under no circumstances should Zuckerberg accede to Thune’s investigation, appear before his committee or allow any outsider suggest how his editors should do their jobs.
As a wealthy publisher, he has a special obligation to ward off such attempts.
At the same time, Facebook also has to be more transparent on what it does and how it does it — not because of government pressure, but because that’s the way media companies are supposed to act.
Thune is overstepping, but you can’t fully blame him. The regulation of broadcasting for the past 80 years has set a bad precedent. Because of it, some policymakers, Thune among them apparently, think all electronic media — even that delivered by the internet — is somehow subject to regulation. They aren’t, of course.
By the way, Thune and others make a horrible assumption — that an algorithm can be written that is truly objective. Any news gathering algorithm inevitably reflects the biases of the programmer or programmers who wrote it.
And even if it relied heavily on sharing and usage data as the Facebook algorithm does, it will still reflect the biases of the most active users.
As all editors know, objectively is always elusive.
So, it was a good week for editors. Even the basic task of picking the best stories cannot be done by machine alone, Facebook has affirmed.
And it may also have been a good week for publishers — if Zuckerberg accepts the mantle, steps up and acts like one.