One of the most subtle and dangerous ideas is the belief that the internet and its most powerful outlets are “neutral.” While you may wave you hand and say, “It’s obvious!” I have little doubt that countless people, Catholics included, continue to absorb a huge amount of information without really applying much of a filter.
Do you even think before opening up your browser? Is there any movement perhaps more natural and spontaneous than that innocent click on the Facebook app on your phone? While such tools have become in many cases necessary in today’s society, it’s alway worth reminding ourselves that they are not simply tools, each one of them has a mind and a mindset of its own.
Gizmodo, for example, just published a series of testimonies of ex-workers of Facebook.
The stories goes like this:
Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.
Put simply, when the word “trending” appears on your Facebook account, you can translate that to mean “trending according to Facebook editors”.
“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said the former curator. This individual asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the company. The former curator is politically conservative, one of a very small handful of curators with such views on the trending team. “I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”
The former curator was so troubled by the omissions that they kept a running log of them at the time; this individual provided the notes to Gizmodo. Among the deep-sixed or suppressed topics on the list: former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report; Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was murdered in 2013; and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder. “I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news,” the former curator said.
Another former curator agreed that the operation had an aversion to right-wing news sources. “It was absolutely bias. We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is,” said the former curator. “Every once in awhile a Red State or conservative news source would have a story. But we would have to go and find the same story from a more neutral outlet that wasn’t as biased.”
Several former Facebook “news curators,” as they were known internally, also told Gizmodo that they were instructed to artificially “inject” selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion—or in some cases weren’t trending at all. The former curators, all of whom worked as contractors, also said they were directed not to include news about Facebook itself in the trending module.
In other words, Facebook’s news section operates like a traditional newsroom, reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation. Imposing human editorial values onto the lists of topics an algorithm spits out is by no means a bad thing—but it is in stark contrast to the company’s claims that the trending module simply lists “topics that have recently become popular on Facebook.”
All this serves as a reminder to 1) not rely on Facebook as your main source of news 2) be aware of the fact the truth has never been and never will be easy to obtain. Technology and social media often give us the sensation of being “informed” and while that may be true to an extent, it is also much more likely that we are “disinformed” about the truth, which is much worse.
Here’s a final quote from the article that really drives things home:
Rather, Facebook’s efforts to play the news game reveal the company to be much like the news outlets it is rapidly driving toward irrelevancy: a select group of professionals with vaguely center-left sensibilities. It just happens to be one that poses as a neutral reflection of the vox populi, has the power to influence what billions of users see, and openly discusses whether it should use that power to influence presidential elections.
“It wasn’t trending news at all,” said the former curator who logged conservative news omissions. “It was an opinion.”
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