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Is Facebook Spreading Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories?

How recent changes to the trending news section are helping Breitbart News.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Facebookmedia

Earlier this year, it was reported that those viral news stories and brief summaries that recently started appearing at the top right of your Facebook news feed were curated by humans. For some reason, this was treated as a shocking revelation—despite the fact that the summaries accompanying the trending stories were clearly written by humans, and the even more obvious point that of course Facebook (which has famously wrestled with the problem of handling offensive and controversial posts) would think twice before allowing an algorithm to automatically broadcast to its users whatever content simply happened to be popular at the moment.

But there was another part of the story, an element that catapulted the inner workings of Facebook’s trending news operation from obvious finding to full-on political controversy. This was its alleged “suppression” of conservative news, a charge which actually lumped together two different claims: that Facebook’s curators blocked topics of interest to conservatives from appearing in its trending section, and that it blocked stories from conservative news sources unless they could be corroborated elsewhere. Gizmodo, which led the reporting on the issue, treated these two practices as one single, objectionable form of “suppression.” Relying on an anonymous former curator with conservative political views, it detailed the practices of Facebook’s trending team, which allegedly included omitting certain stories:

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.”

Stories covered by conservative outlets (like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax) that were trending enough to be picked up by Facebook’s algorithm were excluded unless mainstream sites like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN covered the same stories.

In a response statement, a Facebook VP said the company had found no evidence confirming the allegations, and stressed that such practices would have violated company policy: “There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. 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.” However subtly, this response at least distinguished between two different issues that Gizmodo’s reporting collapsed: Facebook’s treatment of topics versus its treatment of sources.

The question of topics is at least understandable as a matter for debate. The root of the conservative complaint seemed to be that if Facebook is serving as a major news portal for hundreds of millions of Americans who believe it to be neutral, then politically biased editorial interventions are deceptive and unfair. It should be said that even this complaint assumes quite a lot. Do people really see the “trending stories” as equivalent to the front page of a newspaper? If a purely algorithm-based system is unworkable, are political reasons for including or excluding stories less justified than other reasons? And don’t these complaints, with their suggestion that Facebook should have to be fairer to conservatives, evince a lot more enthusiasm for regulation than conservatives usually express?

The second component of the complaint, however, is simply ridiculous. Why shouldn’t Facebook have double-checked stories from Breitbart, Newsmax, and other right-wing sources? They’re entirely unreliable sources of information. Conservative news media is infamous for generating and promoting stories of dubious origin, to say nothing of outright lies. FOX News is only the most famous example. Facebook has no responsibility to spread conservative propaganda. The idea that checking credible news outlets for corroboration before taking right-wing media at its word amounts to “suppression” is absurd. But absurdity is no defense against bad press, and so Facebook fired its trending team and left things up to the algorithm. (It has since dropped the story summaries as well.) In no time at all, the trending stories were full of hoaxes, lies, and offensive and vulgar material. One example was a pro-Trump piece falsely claiming that Megyn Kelly had been fired by FOX News for supporting Hillary Clinton. As the Guardian reported, it was “published by a website called Ending the Fed and linking to another little known site, Conservative 101. Under Facebook’s old guidelines, news curators stuck to a list of trusted media sources. Neither of these sources were on that list.”

A month later, things have not improved. During Monday night’s debate, Hillary Clinton noted that Donald Trump’s company was sued decades ago by the Justice Department for racial discrimination. Earlier this week, the Department of Labor announced a racial discrimination lawsuit against Palantir, a prominent Silicon Valley firm co-founded by billionaire Trump supporter Peter Thiel. Here is how the story appeared in Facebook’s trending section:

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There is, of course, no evidence that President Obama is using the Labor Department to target his political enemies. The source for this claim is none other than Breitbart News, the white nationalist agitprop site whose former executive chairman was Steve Bannon, who recently left that position to join the Trump campaign as its “CEO.” I doubt that many Facebook users who saw this unsubstantiated claim took note of the source—or that, if they had, they would have recognized it as untrustworthy. (By the way, if you want a handy example of Breitbart’s stance on bigotry and discrimination, they published, on the same day, an attack on Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum that declared, “hell hath no fury like a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.”)

Imagine that such a story—or, indeed, any story from a source like Breitbart—had been squashed by Facebook’s old team of trending editors. I think I could live with that decision. And to satisfy critics, Facebook could post a notification informing readers that the “trending” section is a curated selection of stories put together by Facebook employees. Facebook seems to have determined, for public relations reasons, that this solution would not suffice. But whereas a month ago Facebook had a fake problem, it now has a real one. The human editors and their biases are gone, replaced by an algorithm and its promotion of lies. Once again, conservatives have bullied an institution worried about maintaining its reputation for objectivity into unwittingly disseminating their misinformation. Why Facebook thinks this somehow fulfills their duty—either to users or to American politics—is beyond me.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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