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.
THIS one’s going to cause a stir; note that Facebook contested the claims right away. Also note that we’re NOT talking about the legendary Facebook algorithm, which determines which stories appear in each user’s timeline — humans filter “trending news” stories, deciding which ones to highlight.
However this story turns out, the fact that conservatives were quick to pounce on it demonstrates something important: Facebook is one of the new gatekeepers that determine the information voters see. In the broadcast era, TV news was the number-one broadcast-era gatekeeper, which is one reason conservatives still rage against a “liberal media” and “media bias” that they saw as directed towards them.
Traditional gatekeepers (and their successors in the blogosphere) still help shape the public discussion, but the internet’s vast glut of content means that just about every idea will get a hearing somewhere. In this era, the gatekeepers’ work is subtle — alorithms (and some human filtering) determine the stories we see, usually based on how “engaging” the data tells the gatekeepers they are.
But the system includes plenty of room for manipulation for reasons other than maximizing page-views. This week’s story involved humans; will the next one involve robots? What if someone at Facebook decided to “tweak” the algorithm to encourage some people to vote and not others? We might never know — and that’s the scariest part. This WON’T be the last time a social-media gatekeeper makes political news…in a bad way.