Facebook’s News Operations Controversy

By Sal Bommarito

Sen. John Thune, Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee wants Facebook to tell his committee “how it handles news articles in its ‘trending list’ . . .” according to a New York Times piece on Wednesday.

Specifically, Thune wants to know what steps FB is taking to “investigate” claims that its curators excluded articles, or that they “in fact manipulated the content of the trending list.” Some reporters have indicated that FB has “suppress[ed] conservative stories or kept them from trending.”

Let’s first unequivocally stipulate that FB’s news business is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting. . . or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .”

No one is attempting to tell FB how to run its news operations. However, longstanding traditions in the media frown upon press organizations that manipulate readers in their reporting. Over the years, op-ed sections have been the repository for opinion pieces, as opposed to reported stories. Even reporting on TV is divided into pure reporting and commentary. Viewers are informed when opinions are being expressed.

There is also a “big brother” issue that overhangs this debate. Considering that FB has 1.6 billion viewers “who regularly use [it],” the company has extraordinary influence. If it taps this reservoir of followers to project a liberal bias, FB could potentially change public opinion on any subject, such as an election, towards its perspective.

Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with this so long as the company discloses it to its readers that it is expressing its opinion and not reporting an event.

For years, the New York Times and other large newspapers have struggled with this issue. It’s unreasonable to expect that reporters, much less commentators and columnists, will not inject their personal bias in their work. Yet, those, who respect the tradition that governs good reporting, monitor these situations carefully.

The counter point to all this is that FB is not accountable to any governmental agency. Rather it is protected from them. Of course, this would not shield FB from outright lies or slander.

For its own sake, FB should be fair and transparent about its news operations and specifically indicate when stories or tactics are based upon the opinions of FB employees.

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