Facebook, bias, and transparency: My trip to Silicon Valley

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/05/20/facebook-bias-and-transparency-my-trip-to-silicon-valley/

On Wednesday, I was honored to be included among a small group of conservative leaders and journalists who met with Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and other Facebook executives about the recent Trending Topics “scandal.”

For those who have not followed it, the controversy surrounds a May 9 report by the online tech journal Gizmodo in which former Facebook “news curators” claimed to have routinely suppressed conservative stories from the list of Trending Topics that appears on Facebook. Not surprisingly, the Gizmodo report set off a firestorm of protest from conservatives who have long complained of liberal media bias. Others slammed Facebook for “censoring” speech. The complaints, while related, are distinct.

The complaint about media bias raises questions about whether Facebook selects its Trending Topics in an objective, neutral manner. The complaint about “censorship” involves questions about the method by which Facebook might block particular posts or pages that do not conform to the company’s “community standards” policy. Conservatives have valid concerns about both processes. And Zuckerberg is right to address them head on.

In an effort to open a dialogue with conservatives, Facebook invited several of us — including members of conservative media, the heads of the two most prominent conservative think-tanks (the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation), former Bush appointees, and campaign operatives from current and former Republican presidential campaigns — to meet with Zuckerberg, Sandberg, and other members of the Facebook team.

Predictably, not all conservatives welcomed Facebook’s overtures. The Drudge Report ran a headline entitled, “Glenn Beck to grovel at Zuckerberg’s feet.” The Federalist called the meeting a “textbook con job.” Other conservatives, including Matt Schlapp of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, refused to attend.

Initially, I had mixed feelings about the event. As a conservative, I was not surprised by allegations of ideological bias involving a large mainstream institution owned and operated by political liberals. Nothing new there. But what did surprise me was the organization’s seeming concern about such charges. The New York Times has never paid a minute’s attention to such concerns – although the allegations of bias there are far more serious. And the Boston Globe has certainly never convened a meeting of conservative leaders to ask how it might serve them better.

Needless to say, I was interested and impressed by Zuckerberg’s overture to conservatives. I wanted to hear what Facebook had to say about the issue. And, as the only member of the New England media invited to attend the event, I felt it was important for local conservatives to be represented.

So, off I went to Silicon Valley to join Glenn Beck, Brent Bozell, Arthur Brooks, Tucker Carlson, Dana Perino and others in a semi-private meeting with the Facebook team.

Here is what I learned:

1. With respect to allegations that staff members inserted liberal stories that were not actually trending into Trending Topics or purposefully scuttled trending stories of interest to conservatives, Facebook says it has found no evidence that such claims are true, but is conducting a full investigation.

2. Facebook executives acknowledged, however, that the curation process itself may need fixing. They explained that the Trending Topics are selected by an algorithm but cross-checked by staff. One of the ways Facebook staff confirms the newsworthiness of a story is by seeing whether the story is being covered by a certain number of mainstream sites, including The New York Times, CNN, the BBC, and Fox News. This avoids inclusion of topics such as “what’s for lunch?” and ensures that the stories posted as trending are actually news. But because most of the mainstream sites used by Facebook to “validate” the stories skew liberal (Fox News being the exception), stories from conservative outlets (such as the Washington Times or the Washington Examiner) that may be “trending” will be discarded if they are not also covered by enough of the larger, mainstream news outlets.

3. With respect to the question of posts that are pulled for violations of “community standards,” Facebook representatives explained that they only review posts or pages where there are complaints. It does not matter if they receive one complaint or a hundred about a post or page. One is sufficient to trigger review and the number of complaints in no way affects the outcome. These reviews are all done by human beings who sometimes make mistakes. Facebook insists it does its best to correct any such errors.

What were my impressions?

With respect to Facebook, I came away from the meeting impressed with Zuckerberg’s sincere desire both to be even-handed and to earn the trust of conservatives. Zuckerberg and his team fully acknowledged that they need to rethink the way it curates Trending Topics and that it needs to communicate its community standards policy more explicitly. They seemed genuinely committed to seeking feedback from various stakeholders and to making these policies as fair and transparent as possible.

But, more surprising than Facebook’s efforts to address claims of political bias, was the reaction of some of the other conservatives around the table. I felt as if I had entered the Twilight Zone. One conservative broadcaster demanded to know what Zuckerberg and Sandberg plan to do to ensure that Facebook employs a requisite number of conservatives.

Another complained of systemic bias and of policies that have a disparate impact on conservative posts.

A third thought it might be useful to provide training to employees to make them more sensitive to conservative perspectives.

After several rounds of this, I found myself unable to keep quiet.

“Did I walk into the wrong meeting?” I asked.

“I thought this was a meeting of conservatives, but in the past 10 minutes, I’ve heard claims of ‘systemic bias’ and calls for ‘re-education’ classes and proportional representation of conservatives in the workplace.”

I was surprised at how quickly several of the participants had reverted to the lexicon of the Left. And I found it odd that people who ordinarily support the right of business owners to run their businesses and speak as they please felt comfortable demanding concessions from the management team of a large corporation.

This is not to say that charges of bias against organizations that claim to be objective are not serious. Or that diversity of thought is unimportant.

My point was simply that this is, after all, Mark Zuckerberg’s company, and Zuckerberg is not obligated to provide a platform for conservative stories. Conservatives, of all people, should stand behind Zuckerberg’s right to run Facebook as he sees fit.

Conservatives mistrust mainstream media outlets not because they promote a liberal agenda, but because they lie about it. That is why many of us have left mainstream publications to work for conservative media. We don’t pretend that news can be presented without perspective, and – unlike many liberal news outlets — we are transparent about ours. I told Zuckerberg and Sandberg that if they choose to promote liberal stories but are transparent about their approach, most conservatives will stand behind them. Facebook could call its list of top stories Facebook Favorites (rather than Trending Topics) to make clear that its staff is performing a curating function.

But Zuckerberg rejected my suggestion, emphasizing his commitment to ensuring that Facebook remains a platform for people of all political perspectives. Perhaps he truly believes in the marketplace of ideas. Perhaps he cares more about shareholder value than his own personal political views. Perhaps he does not want to risk losing conservatives in the larger marketplace. But, whatever the reason, his commitment to even-handedness seemed sincere.

There then followed conversation about the best way to achieve that goal. We discussed relying solely on computerized algorithms, and someone suggested perhaps eliminating Trending Topics altogether.

We spoke generally about areas of common concern — government regulation of the internet and over-regulation of private companies — and made clear that when it comes to those issues, conservatives are Facebook’s strongest allies.

By consulting with conservatives, Zuckerberg and Sandberg opened the door to a mutually beneficial relationship. Zuckerberg’s overtures are not just good politics. They’re good business.

As for my fellow conservatives, let’s not play the victim card. Yes, of course, we should call out bias where it exists and demand transparency from those who claim to be neutral arbiters of the news we consume. But let’s not blame others if our ideas or concerns fail to “trend.”

Jennifer C. Braceras

Jennifer C. Braceras

Jennifer C. Braceras is Editor of the NewBostonPost. Read her past columns here.

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