Allegations of bias raise questions about Facebook’s news role

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Former Facebook journalists/employees released information via Gizmodo on Monday, May 10, about the Trending Topics section on Facebook, saying that journalists “inject” topics that weren’t necessarily trending and were discouraged from posting conservative news.

The Facebook Trending Topics feed shows popular stories next to the user’s News Feed. Previous Facebook employees claim that it lacked a conservative stance (Mariana Chrisney).

The former employees, all of them anonymous, claimed they were encouraged to not place sources from conservative websites on the list of trending topics. A few days after they came forward, Facebook posted on its blog a 28-page internal document showing the procedures of trending articles. This was posted after The Guardian leaked a similar document.

The former workers said Facebook forced stories onto the list, including the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. News outlets also reported that the former workers were not permitted to post any stories related to Facebook on the trending feed.

The issue sparked such a controversy that Senate Republicans wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the trending news section. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, requested an investigation on the case, and asked who was in charge of Trending Topics.

Zuckerberg posted a response on his Facebook page Thursday saying that Facebook is conducting a full investigation. He also invited leading conservatives and others across the political spectrum to 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,” Zuckerberg wrote.

Adam Durfee, Vice President of Wallaroo and a social media professor at BYU, explained Facebook users need to understand that Facebook is a business, not a news entity.

“Newsrooms need to be unbiased. Facebook is not a news entity and has no obligation to the public or anyone else to have a neutral stance on (any topic),” Durfee said. “Whether or not they’re guilty of (having a liberal bias), it is their website and they are welcome to do as they will on it.”

Billions of people use Facebook as a news source. Durfee mentioned a report from August 2015 that shows Facebook as the No. 1 trafficker for news sources, edging out Google.

Hunter Schow, an incoming BYU student, noticed a few patterns on his Facebook feed while scrolling through trends. “I like the Trending (Topics), but I have noticed that it is very liberal and tends to have a very progressive bias,” he said.

Like many others, Schow relies on his Facebook News Feed to get the latest news. “I stopped watching other networks a while ago because it was too depressing,” he said.

Eric Risberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco. Facebook is under fire after a report from a Gawker site accused it of manipulating its “trending topics” feature to promote or suppress certain political perspectives. Facebook has denied the claims, but the GOP-led U.S. Senate Commerce Committee sent a letter to Zuckerberg requesting answers about the matter. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Ed Carter, director of the BYU School of Communications, knows that most social media, especially Facebook is a big news source for millennials. Because a majority of adults receive their news from social media websites, Carter believes Facebook should be responsible for providing unbiased information.

“Facebook is representing itself as an information delivery company. They hold some responsibility to become more transparent. What’s trending is supposed to appear on the algorithm, not their opinion,” he said.

Because Facebook is such a powerful social media influencer, Carter fears that without checks and balances, Facebook could easily abuse its power to inform the public.

“There can be an abuse in power,” he said. “(Whoever) is making the decisions, they don’t seem to be trained as journalists.”

Washington, D.C.’s congressional newspaper The Hill revealed Facebook’s vice president Tom Stocky as a donor of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign last Monday. Stocky has denied the anonymous allegations made against the company, stating that there is no evidence as to whether the claims against Facebook’s objectivity are true.

Facebook and Twitter are both popular social media websites where news is shared. Approximately 41 percent of adults get their news from Facebook, while only 10 percent of adults get their news on Twitter (Jessica Olsen).

“There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics.”

After Stocky released his statement, Schow noticed more “conservative news” in the Trending Topics section.

“Seems pretty convenient now; I’m just seeing how many conservative stories are getting posted,” he said. “(There are topics) including the actual trend suppression itself.”

Zuckerberg expressed his passion for sharing news on his social media website.

“The reason I care so much about this is that it gets to the core of everything Facebook is and everything I want it to be,” he said. “Every tool we build is designed to give more people a voice and bring our global community together. For as long as I’m leading this company, this will always be our mission.”

Zuckerberg is scheduled to meet with conservative leaders this Wednesday, May 18, including radio host Glenn Beck and conservative think tank president Arthur Brooks.

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