If the story wasn’t trending before, it certainly is now. A recent Gizmodo article reveals that Facebook “news curators” intentionally avoided including conservative news topics in its trending topics feed. A former employee claimed that workers “prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential” news section. And now it seems as though the government has taken notice.
Yesterday, Sen. John Thune, Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, penned a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in which he suggests that:
If Facebook presents its Trending Topics section as the result of a neutral, objective algorithm, but it is in fact subjective and filtered to support or suppress particular political viewpoints, Facebook’s assertion that it maintains a “platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum” misleads the public.”
The letter inquires about internal review practices used to curate its trending news feed, including the team’s organizational structure, specific examples of stories “that represented conservative viewpoints or topics of interest to conservatives,” and much more. Suppose for a moment that it were to come to light that Facebook had indeed intentionally suppressed the political speech of conservatives. What should the government do about it? What can the government do about it?
To be blunt, the answer to both questions is: nothing.
As AEI’s Gus Hurwitz points out:
The first question to ask is not whether Facebook’s potential manipulation of what it identifies as trending news is problematic. Rather, it is to ask why Facebook is in a position to decide what counts as trending news at all. Facebook competes in the broad and dynamic information, media, and news marketplace. It competes with Twitter as a dominant social media platform. It competes with Google’s search, e-mail, and video businesses. And it is competing — alongside the likes of Google and Twitter — with traditional news outlets.
The same Gizmodo story that first broke the news of the news curators’ subjective filtration would seem to concur. It even quotes a former news curator claiming they “would get yelled at if it was all over Twitter and not on Facebook.” No surprise there. Facebook has long battled with Twitter when it comes to real-time news updates—it is, after all, quite difficult to compete with a social media platform that is almost entirely designed to incentivize a conversational medium of communication.
And let’s not forget that since no one actually has access to a perfectly “neutral, objective algorithm” for news filtration, human, and therefore subjective, analysis will inevitably be involved in the form of editorial discretion. It seems highly unlikely there was any intentional malfeasance on Facebook’s part. No company that size would actively endorse shutting out the perspectives of such a large segment of the population simply due to its politics. If nothing else, it’s simply bad business (to say nothing of the social backlash). Conservatives and libertarians, should they feel unjustifiably censored, are free to vote with their feet.
It is not the role of policymakers to dictate standards of free speech to private enterprise. If it were, I suspect we’d see a Paul Krugman variant writing for the Wall Street Journal, regular Charles Krauthammer musings in the New York Times, socialist standard-bearers in Reason, and free market fundamentalist columns in Jacobin. As a private entity offering its services to willing users, Facebook is not bound to adhere to the First Amendment. Facebook’s role as a quasi-supplier of news places it in a precarious position, optimizing what it views as the most relevant trending topics on one hand, and attempting to be as unbiased as an organization of imperfect human beings will permit.
While they ought to respect the fundamental tenets of free speech—and it seems pretty clear that, on the whole, they do—they are not required by statute to do so. Nor should they be.
Richard Bennett wrapped this sentiment up nicely in a post for Tech Policy Daily:
Yes, the Internet is full of echo chambers that reinforce biases and protect people from opposing points of view, but it’s hardly the job of public policy to tell us what to read. It’s a small step from doing that to telling us what to think.
Mark Zucerkberg has made it clear that his company strives for neutrality in curating its feeds and that Facebook and has no intention of using its products and services to influence votes or politics. Maybe you take him at his word. Maybe you don’t. Either way, it’s important to remember that only the government is technically bound by the First Amendment. Private actors are free to organize their publications in whatever manner they deem most appropriate for their users.
Ironically, the same government that now seems poised to step into the fray of this debate is a far more foreboding antagonist of digital free speech. The real concern conservatives, libertarians, and indeed the American people should have is the potential chilling effect on free speech from the ever-growing surveillance state. I gave a talk about this very issue at this year’s CPAC conference.
I suspect most of us value free speech, and view it no differently in the online realm than in the world of atoms. But the same strictures we apply to government violations of free speech don’t hold for private companies. That is as it should be. The marketplace of ideas can only remain competitive if we permit the widest range of ideas to disseminate. And while the potential for private actors to squelch our speech may seem distasteful, in an age of unprecedented global interconnectivity I suspect it is less of a concern than it ever has been before.
The First Amendment is an important pillar of democratic society. Indeed, the ability for individuals to openly discuss, debate, and differ in their opinions is part of the secret sauce that allows free and open societies to flourish. Instead of focusing our attention on non-issues like this one, we should be far more focused, and far more concerned, about the free speech implications of letting an unaccountable surveillance apparatus to continue operating with limited or no accountability to the American people. Facebook is not the enemy of free speech; unfettered government surveillance is.