What The Media Don’t Let You See
Everybody’s talking about the Gizmodo piece quoting anonymous people who used to work for Facebook, who … well, 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.
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.”
So they suppressed news that people were actually talking about, and pretended that more people were talking about things like Black Lives Matter on Facebook than really were, because BLM is something the company’s leadership believes in.
Last week, Gizmodo talked to former journalists who worked on this project at Facebook. Excerpts:
Launched in January 2014, Facebook’s trending newssection occupies some of the most precious real estate in all of the internet, filling the top-right hand corner of the site with a list of topics people are talking about and links out to different news articles about them. The dozen or so journalists paid to run that section are contractors who work out of the basement of the company’s New York office.
“We were housed in a conference room for two-and-a-half months,” said one former curator (all former curators insisted on anonymity out of concerns over violating their non-disclosure agreements with Facebook). “It was clear that Zuckerberg could squash the project at any moment.”
Just so you know, an estimated 600 million people worldwide see a news story on FB in a given week. That’s one-sixth of the entire planet. Facebook wants to cultivate an image of being totally bias-free, and allowing its users to determine what’s trending and what’s not. But that’s not how it works.
Who were the people choosing these stories?:
The trending news section is run by people in their 20s and early 30s, most of whom graduated from Ivy League and private East Coast schools like Columbia University and NYU. They’ve previously worked at outlets like the New York Daily News, Bloomberg, MSNBC, and the Guardian. Some former curators have left Facebook for jobs at organizations including the New Yorker, Mashable, and Sky Sports.
According to former team members interviewed by Gizmodo, this small group has the power to choose what stories make it onto the trending bar and, more importantly, what news sites each topic links out to. “We choose what’s trending,” said one. “There was no real standard for measuring what qualified as news and what didn’t. It was up to the news curator to decide.”
So East Coast elites were making invisible, unaccountable editorial decisions, while Facebook led its members to believe that they were unbiased, that “trending” was only a thing to do with what its users were actually reading.
It was a lie. Mark Zuckerberg is a fraud.
I’m going to cancel my Facebook account. I don’t really use it much, certainly not as a news source. But if Facebook will lie about that, what other lies is it telling its users?
This is a classic example of how media bias works. Many people believe that media bias is when the media tell people what to believe. Sometimes that happens, but more often than not, media bias occurs when reporters, editors, and producers decide what counts as news, and therefore what the boundaries of public discussion should be.
I saw it happen in my industry over gay marriage. Reporters routinely went out of their way to create positive coverage, and to ignore any objection to it. As one editor I argued with at a newspaper conference said to me, “Do you think we should give fair and balanced coverage to the KKK?” I heard that kind of thing often. Same too with radical Islam in America. It is not news that journalists are overwhelmingly liberal (see here and here and here, for example; the Indiana University study also shows that over 90 percent of journalists are college-educated, which inculcates a massive cultural bias), and that that liberalism causes them to promote causes that are important to them — and, to be fair, I think many of them genuinely don’t understand how skewed their perceptions are. What is most interesting to me, though, is how their biases prevent them from seeing what is right in front of their faces.
Terry Mattingly brings up a good example from The New York Times over the weekend. Manny Hernandez, a Houston-based Times reporter, wrote a piece explaining Texas. It begins this way:
I was born and raised in Central California, and I moved to Houston from Brooklyn in June 2011 to cover Texas for The New York Times. I live here with my wife, my 7-year-old son and my 3-year-old daughter, who keeps a pair of pink cowboy boots outside on the porch or inside by the front door. I have covered stories in the South, the Midwest and other parts of the country. People in those places identified with their political party, their job, their cause, their sexual orientation, their city, their race. Almost no one identified with their state the way Texans do.
Who are these people, these Texans?
Anybody who lives in Texas, or who has lived in Texas, will immediately spot what’s wrong with that paragraph. For the rest, TMatt explains it for you:
Look at that list of life-shaping forces: That would be “political party,” “job,” “cause,” “sexual orientation,” “city,” “race” and “state.” OK, Texans, can I get a witness? What is missing from that list?
“Religion,” of course. Maybe that’s what the Times guy means when he says “cause”?
You have to really work at it to miss the enormous role religion plays in the lives of Texans. I come from next-door Louisiana, but when I moved to Texas in 2003, I was not prepared for the overwhelming presence of religion in Texas life. Hey, for me, that’s a feature! Like it or not, Texans take their religion seriously. In Dallas, I was surprised to discover that many liberals go to church. Heck, the world’s largest gay church is in Dallas!
But in an otherwise colorful piece describing the unusual character of Texas, the Times correspondent didn’t even mention religion. Funnily enough, this reminded me of the only thing that the best TV show ever, Friday Night Lights, got wrong about Texas: religion. Every now and then an episode would show the characters in church on Sunday, but my wife (a native Texan) said that in small-town Texas, there is simply no way that church would be at the periphery of life, even for teenagers. I think the show’s creators simply did not know how to handle religion, so they all but erased it.
Back to America’s news media: see, this is why I think it’s a crock of s–t when I hear news executives talk about how important diversity is to newsrooms, because (they say) we have to cover America as it is. They do not mean it. If they did, they would make at least a fraction of the effort to recruit conservatives and Evangelicals as they do recruiting ethnic minorities. I am not kidding when I tell you a US media executive will lie awake at night in bed, trying to figure out how to hire a transgendered reporter, but the thought that maybe, just maybe, he ought to be reaching out to find an Evangelical reporter never, ever crosses his mind.
Earlier today, I was talking about badly led institutions that were digging their own graves because they were blind to the changing world around them, and clung bitterly to confirmation bias? Same deal with so much of our news media. Not all of them. I know good, honest, fair reporters and editors, mostly liberals, but some conservatives, who try hard to be fair (even at the Times!). But mostly, in my experience, the culture is pretty much what we are told is the case at Facebook. And most of us have very little idea of how we are manipulated. In fact, I would say that most of the manipulators don’t really know how they’re manipulating things, because everywhere they look around them they see people of both sexes and all races, who think like they do.
This is why so many of the media (myself included, I must concede) missed the rise of Trump. But that’s another story.