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The first thing you need to know is that, according to reporting at Gizmodo, Facebook’s “trending topics” widget—an area that appears to the right of everyone’s newsfeed screen—has been run by humans. The second thing you need to know is that a few of those humans have started talking to a reporter. And the third thing you need to know is that one of those people who is doing the talking is accusing Facebook of an editorial bias.
Earlier this month, tech site Gizmodo reported that Facebook’s trending topics human curators “have access to a ranked list of trending topics surfaced by Facebook’s algorithm, which prioritizes stories that should be shown to Facebook users in the trending section.” That section, Gizmodo continues, “constitutes some of the most powerful real estate on the internet and helps dictate what news Facebook’s users… are reading at any given moment.”
On Monday, Gizmodo reported that at least two former curators were bothered by what they considered a bias against conservative news topics appearing in that prime space. “I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news,” one anonymous curator reportedly said. “It was absolutely bias. We were doing it subjectively,” said another. According to these former curators, stories from places like well-known right-wing news sites like Breitbart or the Washington Examiner “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.”
The fallout has been nearly immediate. The U.S. Senate’s commerce committee has already said it will launch an investigation, and wants Facebook’s creator, Mark Zuckerberg to questions about the trending topics section, including who is responsible for it and whether it was manipulated to be anti-conservative.
It is only a symptom of at least one larger issue: That the news media as we know it has become subservient to a technology company.
This problem—that there might have been a bias shown against conservative news outlets—should actually be the least of our worries. For it is only a symptom of at least one larger issue: That the news media as we know it has become subservient to a technology company. And, to a large extent, there is barely any difference between the two anymore.
In a recent live conversation at the University of Chicago, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart discussed television journalism and argued its heyday was in the time of Nixon-Kennedy. Since that time, Stewart said, “an entire industry has risen up as to how to manipulate and skew that medium to the advantage of the politicians and the powerful.”
Rather than creating a counter-weight to that power, the media was instead “subsumed by it,” Stewart said. Now, the relationship is symbiotic. “The media is no longer predator and prey, which I think should be the relationship, but a remora that’s just attached underneath, hoping for crumbs that fall off of the shark,” he said.
Let’s assume that assessment is correct (it certainly sounds right when it comes to 24-hour news channels). If it is, then we can estimate such a transformation took about a quarter-century—from the time CNN first went live to the early part of the 2000s.
Print media’s transformation into a remora to an industry that learned quickly to manipulate print media’s transference online and skew it to its own advantage took around ten years. That industry is tech, and its biggest skewer is Facebook.
For a short time, it looked like the deal Facebook offered publishers was perfect. Facebook allowed newspapers and magazines to post stories from their websites to Facebook, and in return they garnered thousands and thousands of visits, which they could then turn into advertising revenue. Facebook’s payoff initially was users, eyeballs and increasing time spent on its site. It gained by becoming a go-to for everything—not just what happened at last night’s party.
People liked this. A lot.
In 2015, Pew Research found that, “while the percentage of users receiving news from Facebook and Twitter has increased, the total percentage of Americans using the social networks has remained steady.” If Facebook isn’t growing its audience, the next best thing it can do is keep its audience on its site longer. Facebook now commands, on average, 50 minutes of its users’ time every day. The next closest social media site is YouTube, on which people spend an average of only 17 minutes a day.
Facebook is now so all-consuming that, in some cases, people think Facebook and the Internet are the same thing.
Facebook is now so all-consuming that, in some cases, people think Facebook and the Internet are the same thing (and if Facebook manages to set up itsglobal internet service, it pretty much will be for a lot of people).
While Facebook isn’t alone as the go-to social site for news, it is by far the biggest. Seventy-two percent of adult internet users in the United States (62 percent of Americans overall) use Facebook. For breaking news, Facebook’s competition for a while was probably just Twitter (though Snapchat is changing that). Only 23 percent of all adult Internet users in the U.S. use Twitter.
According to Pew Research, in 2013, 47 percent of Facebook’s users said they considered it a source for news. By 2015, that number had jumped to 63 percent—a 16 percent increase. And in 2015, about half of users aged in the key demographic of 18 to 34 told Pew that Facebook (along with Twitter) was the “most important” or “an important” way to get their news.
As it happens, 2015 is an important year for Facebook. It’s the year the site introduced its Instant Articles.
In so doing, Facebook changed the rules, and its new payoff is more profound.
Now, rather than merely being a conduit for news, Facebook effectively makes you favour reading one thing rather than something else. It does this by making its Instant Articles, available on its mobile app, load exponentially faster than others that take the user out of Facebook’s mobile universe.
Instant Articles have quickly become the easiest way for Facebook’s millions of users to read the news, and thus a preferred way for media outlets to offer it.
Ease of use and wide adoption of Instant Articles combines to make make news that appears anywhere else but on Facebook (ie. the Internet, via its competitor, Google, despite its own recent efforts to introduce similar faster loading pages) seem much less preferable to view.
So, if Facebook favoured news with human editors as described by those who are now speaking out about bias, it might not be so bad. It might also not be so bad if Facebook’s bias was due to its news feed algorithm choosing items based on things people have liked or clicked on in the past or whatever.
In actual fact, it’s worse than that.
Facebook is now prioritizing all news, everywhere, whether it appears in its trending section or not, and even whether it appears on Facebook or not. Forget conservative or liberal bias; Facebook’s true bias is toward any outlet that buys into its business model. And it is gradually shaping it so that all news outlets have to get on board, lest they be left behind in the slow world of the internet outside Facebook.
In fact, it’s already happening.
“NewsWhip, which tracks how publishers are performing across major internet platforms, says the rate at which links to outside websites are shared on Facebook, compared with videos and Instant Articles, has declined,” the New York Times reported last month.
The important thing to remember is that attaching to Facebook translates to money.
The more a news outlet attaches itself to, or embeds itself into, Facebook, the more difficult it will be to leave it.
By one estimate, Facebook will acquire over 30 percent of all U.S. display ad spending in 2016. Why is Facebook doing so well? The rise of video is part of it (it keeps people looking at the site longer), but according to TechCrunch, Instant Articles might have something to do with it, too. Not only does Facebook keep users in its app to read the news with Instant Articles, it almost guarantees that when they’re finished reading, they’ll go back to Facebook for more, and not elsewhere online. This means that if you’re a news outlet in search of ad revenue, you can take your chances that someone will find you in the vastness of the internet, where competition grows by the day, or you can opt to go with Facebook’s scheme and its more or less captive mobile audience.
In short, the more a news outlet attaches itself to, or embeds itself into, Facebook, the more difficult it will be to leave it. As Gawker’s Nick Denton said last month: “The Instant Articles deal seems great. Users get relevant stories and relevant ads. It’s the realization of that particular Internet dream.”
Let’s be honest about what this effectively amounts to: control of information—the only global currency that seriously matters at the moment. And because it exerts this control over revenue and, more importantly, the distribution network, it means Facebook obtains a certain amount of ownership, too. It is indirect ownership (for now), but it is ownership of a kind, nonetheless.
Does this make Facebook a news media company? It may not report the news (yet), but it is fast becoming the best news distribution channel around. For all the difference that makes.
Colin Horgan is a freelance writer based in Torono. He's a former writer, producer, and political editor at CTV News Channel's Kevin Newman Live. He was also formerly a parliamentary reporter for iPolitics.ca in Ottawa, and has been a contributor to Maclean's, the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, the Calgary Herald and others. Follow him on Twitter @cfhorgan.
A version of this story originally appeared on Medium and has been reprinted with permission.