Earlier this month U.S. Senator John Thune sent a letter to Facebook demanding the company answer questions about the procedures behind its news aggregation. What is a U.S. Senator doing demanding information, which he considers “just a matter of transparency and honesty,” from a private-sector company?
This all goes back to an anonymous source in an article from Gizmodo on May 9 who claimed conservative news was suppressed on Facebook’s trending news items list. Facebook sends huge numbers of readers to news outlets and blogs. Last year, it was reported that Facebook had surpassed Google as the #1 source of referral traffic for websites tracked by analytics firm Parse.ly and accounted for close to 40 percent of referral traffic. With much smaller traffic numbers than any of the big outlets CEO Mark Zuckerberg invited to meet with him recently, Bombs and Dollars still knows the import of Facebook, as we get a large share of our traffic from users sharing our articles on Facebook. Conservatives have long believed the mainstream media is biased in favor of liberalism, so it isn’t surprising that many would be outraged about the report.
But before even getting to the veracity of the allegations, consider for a moment if it was true that Facebook slanted its news aggregation in favor of liberal outlets, what would the proper response be? What should the government do about it? What could the government do about it? Facebook is a corporation operating in the free-market system. Why should the government or anyone else have control over how it decides to publish content? If the media in general is biased—and certain outlets transparently are, like MSNBC and Fox News, and indeed all the conservative outlets invited to meet with Zuckerberg—then should they be investigated for slanting their news?
A proponent of the argument that Facebook is different could argue that the large amount of traffic they send makes it akin to an anti-trust issue, but free-market conservatives—the aggrieved party—must have a hard time accepting too much government coercion over a company just because it is successful.
Facebook, furthermore, isn’t the only company that sends a lot of traffic. Google News, Twitter, and many other networks could fall under scrutiny if precedent is set. What about the conservative website DrudgeReport.com? Drudge is the #1 traffic source for many political websites, driving more traffic to TheHill.com than Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit combined, for example, according to an infographic by Intermarkets. One of the reasons Breitbart.com became so successful early on was that Matt Drudge, a friend of Andrew Breitbart, would choose to link to AP articles on Breitbart.com. There was even a “Drudge primary” for which candidate would win the highly-sought-after favor of Matt Drudge, who appeared to choose the links he shared on the basis of his favored candidates. (Incidentally, Drudge’s favored candidates—Trump in 2012 and Romney in 2008—ended up winning the primaries, which is not to say that his support necessarily tilted it their way; he could just be good at picking.)
Breitbart, as it happens, is one of the aggrieved parties in the Facebook controversy, and this points to the fact that there is little evidence of actual anti-conservative bias. One of the few specific claims made in the Gizmodo article said:
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.
It looks more like might be a bias in favor of accuracy rather than an anti-conservative bias. Breitbart, for example, does little actual reporting—publishing mostly opinion articles and wire stories. Where it does do original reporting, its track record is spotty, as with its unverified claim that Obama Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel might have received funds from a group called “Friends of Hamas,” a group that didn’t actually exist. And Breitbart’s opinion articles are often bigoted and unprofessional. Just in the past three months, they have headlined an article on about a prominent anti-Trump and neoconservative Republican activist with the tag “renegade Jew” and published a hit piece on its former editor, Ben Shapiro, who resigned due to its lack of objectivity towards Trump, that the outlet withdraw later that day due to embarrassment. Breitbart articles about immigration refer to legal immigrants as having been “imported” and “shipped.”
So there is no mystery, if true, why Facebook would require confirmation from a credible website before sharing news that originated on Breitbart. Newsmax publishes and syndicates a lot of columns as well as publishing some news of various degrees of credibility and originality. The Washington Examiner, which publishes once a week in print and daily online, is the most reliable of the bunch–and is an excellent source for quality conservative opinion articles, I might add (and not just because Sumantra and I have blogged for them; Tim Carney and Philip Klein are especially recommended).
A direct comment from the anonymous source also points to Facebook having an interest in mainstream, unbiased sources:
“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.”
RedState.com is a communal blog that is influential among the conservative grassroots. It also doesn’t do almost any original reporting, mostly featuring opinion articles from its various contributors.
Thus the problem with so much conservative media in terms of getting into the broader discussion: Most conservative media focuses overwhelmingly on opinion. Bombs and Dollars focuses on opinion, too; there’s nothing wrong with doing so on its face. But if one doesn’t report an original article, but rather comments on it, then that wouldn’t be the right source for Facebook to link to.
A second issue is that the conservative versions of news outlets tend to be much more opinionated than mainstream media sources like CNN and the Washington Post. The New York Times (and to a lesser degree broadcast news) may lean liberal, but what it leans towards mostly is reporting the news. One example of a trusted news outlet that leans conservative but isn’t focused primarily on being conservative is the Wall Street Journal.
Finally, the tendency for many conservatives to jump onto a thinly sourced story like this before it is verified goes to the credibility problem behind the Breitbarts and Conservative Treehouses of the internet. If conservative media outlets want to enhance their credibility to the level that they would be treated as trusted sources for someone like Zuckerberg, they need to be more careful about basing their reports on solid evidence rather than anecdotes that validate their suppositions and suspicions.
Update: Did Facebook respond to the concerns of conservatives? Today a negative story about #BlackLivesMatter is trending in the top three.
Photo of Mark Zuckerberg from Online Circle Digital YouTube video (Creative Commons).