Is Facebook Biased?

By Tracey Dowdy

By now we’ve all heard the allegations that Facebook is manipulating what shows up in your newsfeed, particularly in the trending topics. Is the story a storm in a teacup – an almost welcome respite from the endless election coverage – or is there an actual bias in what we see?

The answer is yes and no.

Consider these statistics:

  • There are 7 billion people on earth
  • Of those 7 billion, 3 billion have access to the Internet
  • Of those 3 billion, 1.65 billion are active users of Facebook

If that doesn’t tell you the scope of Facebook’s influence, consider that a recent report by comScore reveals 20 percent of all mobile time is spent on the Facebook app; 63 percent of Americans see Facebook as their primary news source; and 31 percent rely on Facebook for breaking news. That, my friends, is a lot of influence. Manipulating content is a serious allegation.

We know Facebook uses algorithms to curate your newsfeed, so you see more of who and what you like. That makes sense – the more you see that appeals to you, the longer you stay on Facebook.

Where things get murky is that it’s not just algebraic formulas that determine the content you see. Those algorithms track what’s being talked about based on key words, phrases and how frequently they appear, then human editors take that information and use their own judgment to decide what gets pushed and how to frame the story. That naturally impacts the content we see.

As a publicly traded company Facebook is constantly looking for ways to generate income, meaning it frequently introduces new features in an attempt to keep you engaged. It recently added “Live Video” so you’ve likely started to see notifications like “Jim Gaffigan is live right now,” with the hope you’ll jump in and see what’s happening but ultimately keeping you on Facebook longer.

Facebook relies on ten news organizations for content: (BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Yahoo and Yahoo News. According to the allegations, some editors either blacklisted or highlighted stories based on their own bias, rather than Facebook guidelines. Facebook pays news organizations like Buzzfeed and The New York Times to generate content for them that opens in Facebook, so you don’t have to leave the site to get your news and information.

There are also allegations Facebook tended to downplay content that favored conservative news. According to Gizmodo, Facebook employees admitted “they were suppressing conservative news, mostly because the majority of the employees working to curate the news weren’t conservative.” Whether those allegations are true or not remains to be seen, as both Facebook and the Senate are investigating.

The one piece of good news is those leaked documents indicate Facebook is working hard to filter out those wretched clickbait articles that take you to a sketchy website.

So where does that leave us? Pretty much back where we started actually. It’s unwise to get your news from one source, whether it’s Facebook, Fox News or CNN. It’s human nature to have a bias, and no matter how ethical the journalist, it’s impossible for that bias not to have an impact on their perspective.

For us as Facebook users, continue to engage with content. Hide, unfollow or skip content that doesn’t appeal to you and like, share and comment on the content that does. Click on articles that interest you and share them on your own feed. Those algorithms are always at work in the background, and ultimately Facebook wants to please you so they can keep you engaged and coming back for more.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

 

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