Make no mistake about it, Facebook’s Trending News and the possibility of it suppressing conservative viewpoints is very important. Given that 41% of American adults receive news from Facebook, this has a huge impact.
But most of the analysis misses the main point. Critics generally imply that if Facebook just showed what news was really trending, without human oversight or editorial judgment, that would solve the problem.
Unfortunately, this is false.
Other analyzes suggest that if only Facebook offered fair exposure to conservative news sources, all would be well.
It also misses the heart of the matter.
The main point is: Everyone is biased. They are biased by what they know, what they don’t know, and all of their life experiences. It’s human nature.
A computer algorithm that averages these biased individual choices to provide trend information does not remove the biases, but amplifies them. And worse, it silences other perspectives in favor of the popular flavor of the moment.
In other words, the whole concept behind Trending News is fundamentally wrong. And the way Facebook does it is even worse.
Here’s why it’s a problem and how Facebook could fix it:
1) Trends suppress alternative and minority viewpoints
Facebook’s main political story as I write this involves Ben Carson naming potential candidates for Donald Trump’s vice-presidency. This appears to be legitimate news covered by media from across the political spectrum. What posts does Facebook show on this story? Articles from Slate, Washington Post, CNN and Variety.
Not a single conservative news source or opinion there, but we have room for an entertainment magazine.
Dig deeper. Libertarians make up about 11% of Americans, and many more Americans hold libertarian views. How often would their views or the views of members of the Green Party, Tea Party or other groups appear? Don’t hold your breath.
Large and substantial minority voices are routinely ignored in deference to the most popular or the desires of the majority (or to a biased editorial board with an agenda).
2) Trends are great for entertainment, not news
As insightfully described in Neil Postman’s classic book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, entrusting news to the “show business demands” of television (and now the internet) has a huge impact on our society, and it doesn’t. is not pretty.
Case in point: More people have died from prescription drug overdoses in recent years than from car accidents, and last Friday Congress passed the last of 18 bills to combat this epidemic. But what is making the headlines? As I write this, the most trending story on Facebook concerns Sinead O’Connor, the Irish singer, found to safety after her disappearance.
It’s only fitting that the average American knows more about the Kardashians than Paul Ryan – there’s nothing wrong with entertainment. The problem is when the two get confused.
Everyone knows Mr. Trump’s hair, but what should it matter? What about Hillary Clinton’s clothes? As humans, our emotional reactions to these things and our reactions to society’s judgments of our behavior and others tend to ultimately determine our choices. The rest is just rationalization.
Politicians, marketers and editors know this.
It’s no coincidence that reports of Trump’s comments on women get more coverage than his record for hiring female executives. There was so much coverage of Bill Clinton’s sexual infidelity in the White House that a group called MoveOn.org sprang up just to get Washington to start focusing on its work instead.
In either case, it’s not necessarily clear where to draw the line, but it’s clear that a news outlet eager to win over viewers often runs after the dramatic, sexual and entertaining on larger topics that have a impact on all of our lives.
3) Facebook’s audience is liberally biased
Although Republicans, Conservatives, Moderates and Independents all use Facebook in large numbers, Pew Research reports that “more Liberal Democrats use Facebook” than other political groups.
How does this distort the news? The most popular and trending news among liberals and conservatives differs, so Facebook’s algorithm will accidentally give more weight to news that liberals find interesting and less weight to other perspectives.
4) Only 1 of the top 10 news sources used by Facebook has a right-wing bias
Facebook’s trending review guidelines rely on coverage from 10 news websites to determine if a story is particularly important. These 10 websites are BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and BuzzFeed News.
But only one of them, Fox News, has a center-right bias.
(Some might consider the Wall Street Journal to be right-wing because of its commentary, but the news section is clearly front and center, as established by AllSides Bias Ratings, a user-based rating system I created with a few colleagues to assess the political bias of the media.)
Thus, the information on the right obtains only 10% of the votes. News from left-leaning sources gets between 50 and 60 percent of the vote depending on whether you consider CNN center or left (AllSides places CNN.com’s news bias on the boundary between center and left).
This is not just a problem for Facebook, but for the media in general
Some 64% of news consumers prefer news without a specific point of view or bias, and a well-functioning democracy demands this. Without it, we cannot be informed enough to make good decisions.
Yet the latest AllSides analysis shows that 76% of online traffic to news sites goes to clearly biased sources. No wonder the news media have historically low reliability and satisfaction ratings.
What Facebook and the News Media Should Do
If you don’t have a specific system designed to balance news coverage, you are guaranteed to spread biased information. So far, there are two models that work.
For premium original content providers like The Wall Street Journal, well-trained and dedicated editors and writers of the highest standards can deliver balanced news coverage. (By the way, after nearly 2,500 ratings on AllSides, the Christian Science Monitor retains a central rating.)
It is not easy. Since corporations and people in the news industry vastly overrepresent the left, it’s easy for journalists to convince themselves of their own superiority and wisdom. What may seem balanced or fair to them will be centre-left or one-sided.
Alternatively, the most responsible news curators can consciously include top stories from all the different political segments across the spectrum.
Include right-wing reporting on Benghazi or the real, higher unemployment rate, even if the left ignores it, or left-wing reporting on climate change or civil rights issues absent from more conservative news sources. Include the views of socialists and libertarians, economic and social liberals, and conservatives.
This approach truly informs and empowers people. We can truly understand the important issues, rather than just seeing one side, and make better decisions for ourselves and for our country.
The press, and Facebook in particular, can help. This is how democracy works best.
John Gable is founder and CEO of all sides, a multimedia technology company that helps you see, understand and discuss from multiple perspectives. Crowd-centric technologies to AllSides.com provide bias assessments, news, issues, research, and civil dialogues that reveal a wide variety of perspectives and build bridges between conflicting ideas and people.