Technology might democratize information. But the human impulse for control and power has not faded like the ink from newsprint. And Facebook's scandalous manipulation of its trending topics function ought to remind all of us that news consumers have to remain savvy, and cultivate their own sources of information.
Facebook provides its users with an index of trending topics, a headline feed that gives an indication of the top stories generating discussion on the social network. The site claims that the feed results from the organic conversations taking place between its users, and as such offers a measure of social penetration of issues, activists, and news sites.
It turns out that the trending topic index is less "organic" than advertised. Some former Facebook curators now admit, in a lacerating Gizmodo investigation, that they excluded results from conservative news and opinion sites. Among those excluded were The Drudge Report, Breitbart News, The Washington Examiner, and RedState (a site owned by Townhall Media Group, which also owns Hot Air, where I am employed as senior editor). The suppressed trending conversations discussed events such as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a major annual convention of conservative think tanks, activist groups, and elected officials.
What other topics got suppressed? According to Gizmodo's sources, the "blacklist" was both broad and arbitrary. Glenn Beck and my friend Steven Crowder got suppressed, but so did discussions about Mitt Romney — not exactly known for conservative extremism. News about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) got kept off the trending list, perhaps an indicator that some curators on Facebook wanted to unduly influence the GOP presidential primary race.
More disturbingly, curators received instructions to "inject" topics into the index to artificially produce discussion. Some injected topics seem more like a reasonable attempt to get ahead of the curve, such as the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks. One in particular, the Black Lives Matter movement, looks like agenda promotion. "This particular injection is especially noteworthy because the #BlackLivesMatter movement originated on Facebook," Gizmodo's Michael Nunez wrote, "and the ensuing media coverage of the movement often noted its powerful social media presence."
Facebook's trending section apparently works like a newsroom. Editors select topics, sources of information to be used, and the manner and order of presentation to readers. That wouldn't necessarily be so bad — except, as Nunez points out, Facebook has claimed that its process involves no such value judgments. Facebook's explanation of the trending index states, "The topics you see are based on a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages you've liked, and your location." No mention is made at all of curation, let alone "injection" or suppression.
Facebook, of course, denies these allegations. "We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true," said Tom Stocky, the Facebook executive in charge of trending topics. "Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any ideological origin and we've designed our tools to make that technically not feasible."
Forgive me if I don't believe that.
So let's ask a key question: What should conservatives do now that they know with reasonable certainty that Facebook has an anti-conservative bias?
In the wake of these allegations, discussion among conservatives on social media turned to questions of why conservative sites bother with Facebook at all. Should conservatives just dump Facebook?
No. This would be a terrible mistake. Facebook is enormous. Nearly three in five American adults have a Facebook account. Failing to be part of Facebook would only make conservatism more insular than it already is.
But an even more compelling reason to engage is this: Pulling out is exactly what liberal Facebook "curators" want. They wanted to banish conservatives from the platform, or failing that, to make them as irrelevant as possible. Why cooperate with that? Conservatives should use the open platform of Facebook and other social-media networks to engage people, make connections, and use those networks to expand the reach and relevance of the conservative agenda.
Still, conservatives (and all Facebook users) do need to treat Facebook more skeptically than they once did. Never before have consumers had this much access and choice in news sources — and with it the ability to defeat the editorial gatekeepers and gain a balanced and informed perspective. Relying only on Facebook is akin to reading only the hometown newspaper and believing it contains all the news that's fit to print. Instead of trusting a social media network to make those choices, consumers should exercise their own choices — and call out those gatekeepers when their biases become so obvious as to be insulting.
Informed consumer choice: It's not just an antidote to editorial bias — it's a freedom worth liking on any and all social networks.