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Behind Facebook's trending news feed, a deeper flaw

A path to clarity

Most of the analysis of Facebook’s news bias is missing the point. The ideas inherent in 'trending news' are problematic. 

 

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Make no mistake, Facebook’s Trending News and the possibility that it suppresses conservative viewpoints is a very big deal. Since 41 percent of United States adults get news from Facebook, this has a huge impact.

But most of the analysis is missing the main point. Critics generally imply that if Facebook simply showed what news was truly trending, with no human oversight or editorial judgment, that would solve the problem.

Unfortunately, that is wrong. 

Other analysis suggests that if only Facebook gave fair exposure to conservative news sources, things would be fine.

That also misses the heart of the matter.

The main point is: Everyone is biased. They are biased by what they know, what they don’t know, and all their life experiences. That is human nature.

A computer algorithm that averages those individual biased choices to deliver trending news does not remove bias, but amplifies it. And worse, it silences other perspectives in favor of the popular flavor of the moment.

In other words, the whole concept behind Trending News is fundamentally wrong. And the way Facebook’s does it, it is even worse.

Here's why it is a problem, and how Facebook could solve it:

1) Trending suppresses alternative and minority viewpoints

The top Facebook political story as I write this is about Ben Carson naming potential vice president nominees for Donald Trump. That seems like legitimate news being covered from news media across the political spectrum. What news articles does Facebook show about this story? Articles from Slate, Washington Post, CNN and Variety.

Not a single conservative news source or opinion there, but we have room for an entertainment magazine.

Dig deeper. Libertarians roughly account for 11 percent of Americans, and many more Americans hold Libertarian views. How often would their perspective, or perspectives from members of the Green Party, tea party, or other groups appear? Don’t hold your breath.

Important and substantial minority voices are routinely ignored in deference to the most popular or the desires of the majority (or to a biased editorial board with an agenda).

2) Trending is great for entertainment, not news

As insightfully described in Neil Postman’s classic book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," handing over news to the “show-business demands” of television (and now the Internet) has huge impact on our society, and it is not pretty.

Case in point: More people died from prescription drug overdoses in the last few years than in car accidents, and last Friday Congress passed the last of 18 pieces of legislation to fight this epidemic. But what is leading in the headlines? As I write this, Facebook’s top trending story is about Sinead O’Connor, the Irish singer, being found safe after going missing.

It’s OK that the average American knows more about the Kardashians than Paul Ryan – there is nothing wrong with entertainment. The problem is when the two get mixed up.

Everyone knows about Mr. Trump’s hair, but how important should that be? What about Hillary Clinton’s clothes? As human beings, our emotional reactions to these things, and our reactions to society’s judgments about our behavior and others, tend to ultimately determine our choices. The rest is just rationalization.

Politicians, marketers, and news editors know this.

It is no accident that news stories about Trump’s comments about women get more coverage than his record of hiring female executives. There was so much coverage of Bill Clinton’s sexual infidelity in the White House that a group called MoveOn.org sprung into existence just to get Washington to start focusing on their jobs instead.

In both cases, it is not necessarily clear where to draw the line, but it is clear that a news media eager to earn viewers often chases after the dramatic, sexual and entertaining over more important topics that impact all of our lives.

3) Facebook’s audience is skewed liberal 

Although Republicans, conservatives, moderates, and independents all use Facebook in heavy numbers, Pew Research reports that “more liberal Democrats use Facebook” than other political groups.

How does this distort the news? The most popular, trending news among liberals and conservatives differ, so the Facebook algorithm will accidentally give more weight to news that liberals find interesting and less weight to other perspectives.

4) Only 1 of 10 primary news sources used by Facebook has a right-leaning bias

Facebook’s Trending Review Guidelines rely on coverage in 10 news websites to determine if a story is particularly important. Those 10 websites are BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and BuzzFeed News.

But only one of those, Fox News, has a right-of-center bias.

(Some might consider The Wall Street Journal as right-leaning because of its commentary, but the news section is clearly center as established by AllSides Bias Ratings, a user-based rating system I and some colleagues created for gauging the media's political bias.)

So right-leaning news only gets 10 percent of the vote. News from left leaning sources gets between 50 and 60 percent of the vote depending on whether you consider CNN center or left-leaning (AllSides places CNN.com’s news bias on the border between center and left).

This is not just a problem for Facebook, but for news media overall

Some 64 percent of news consumers prefer news without a specific point of view or bias, and a well-functioning democracy requires it. Without it, we can’t be well-enough informed to make good decisions.

Yet AllSides’ latest analysis shows that 76 percent of online traffic to news sites goes to sources with a clear bias. No wonder the news media has historically low rates for trustworthiness and satisfaction.

What Facebook and the news media should do

If you do not have a specific system designed to provide balance in news coverage, you are guaranteed to deliver biased news. So far, there are two models that work.

For high-end original content providers like The Wall Street Journal, well-trained editors and writers dedicated to the highest standards can provide balanced news coverage. (As an aside, after nearly 2,500 ratings on AllSides, the Christian Science Monitor retains a center rating.)

This is not easy. Since the companies and people in the news industry greatly over-represent the left, and it is easy for journalists to become convinced of their own superiority and wisdom. What may seem balanced or fair to them will be left-of-center or one-sided.

Otherwise, the most responsible news curators can consciously include the top stories from all different political segments across the spectrum.

Include a top story on the right about Benghazi or the real, higher unemployment rate even if the left is ignoring it, or a top story on the left about climate change or civil rights issues missing from more conservative news sources. Include perspectives from socialists and libertarians, economic and social liberals and conservatives.

This approach truly informs and empowers people. We can truly understand important issues, rather than just seeing one side, and make better decisions for ourselves and for our country.

The press, and Facebook in particular, can make this happen. That is how democracy works best.

John Gable is founder and CEO of AllSides, a media technology company that helps you see, understand and discuss multiple perspectives. The crowd-driven technologies at AllSides.com provide bias ratings, news, issues, search and civil dialogs that reveal a wide variety of perspectives and build bridges between conflicting ideas and people. 

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