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Facebook Exacerbates One Problem by Trying to Solve Another

A Facebook worker scans data, trying to root out bad actors. Photo: Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook is calling a do-over. The social network is apparently hiring editors who will curate a new section of the app, a News tab that keeps users up-to-date and that is separate from the News Feed. Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, told the Times that the goal “is to provide a personalized, highly relevant experience for people.” Personalized and highly relevant? Tell me more. Brown added that “for the Top News section of the tab we’re pulling together a small team of journalists to ensure we’re highlighting the right stories.” The company has tried this before, to disastrous effect.

Facebook had a similar plan for its ill-fated Trending Topics module, which was edited and curated by human employees until a 2016 Gizmodo report characterized standard editorial work as “suppressing conservative content.” Seeking to quell allegations of partisan bias, Facebook fired the humans and automated the system. The entire enterprise was shut down a few months later.

The revived effort is similar but not identical. It’s specifically focused on news, rather than just whether a story is trending, which is a useless metric for worthiness. The new News tab, as far as I can tell, is not yet another attempt to get digital publishers to hitch themselves to Facebook and create content specifically for the platform — an arrangement that has never worked out well in the long term for publishers. In its nascent state, and based on what little the company has revealed, it seems analogous to Apple News, a service that collects content from other outlets into a single place, or Twitter Moments, which puts a human touch into summarizing stories generating a lot of chatter.

It’s a decent idea in theory, but Facebook’s track record leads me straight to deliriously low expectations. In an effort to make the news on its platform more reliable and less polarizing, Facebook is also reintroducing an element — human oversight — that generated so much criticism that the company has dragged its feet on other safety efforts like rooting out misinformation and hate speech.

Overlapping with Facebook’s complete upheaval of the news industry and rampant misinformation on its platform is the company’s inability to ignore bad-faith criticism from conservatives. Right-wing politicians repeatedly use the specter of “anti-conservative bias” to bludgeon Facebook and keep it from being more aggressive in other areas, like content moderation. The entire reason that Facebook axed its initial human oversight of trending topics, if you recall, was because of that suspect Gizmodo report that cast editorial decision-making as ideological warfare.

On the same day that Facebook announced its intent to rehire journalists to curate news on its platform, it also shared the results of an audit of supposed anti-conservative bias conducted by former GOP senator Jon Kyl. The report, which collected responses from “more than 130 leading conservative politicians and organizations,” outlines the well-worn fears of conservatives without substantiating any of them. The report has been roundly criticized, even from Republican Facebook critics. “Merely asking somebody to listen to conservatives’ concerns isn’t an ‘audit,’ it’s a smokescreen disguised as a solution,” Missouri senator Josh Hawley said in a statement advocating that Facebook make its actual underlying distribution and moderation systems available to third-party analysis.

“Several interviewees believed that this change disproportionately decreased the reach of conservative news content (as compared to liberal news content),” the report states, referencing a much-publicized News Feed ranking change in 2018 that prioritized posts from personal contacts over brand pages. Despite this, sites like Fox News, Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, and Breitbart still get healthy distribution on Facebook; in some cases, they perform better than other mainstream outlets that aim down the center.

Another point states, “Some interviewees specifically complained that Facebook’s Board of Directors lacks conservative members.” One of the longest-tenured Facebook board members and arguably Mark Zuckerberg’s closest outside adviser is Trump booster Peter Thiel.

There is no appeasing conservatives here. The algorithms are biased, and if Facebook hires editors and moderators to double-check decisions made by algorithms, those editors will be denounced as biased too. Facebook, according to the Times, will only hire “seasoned” editors. It’s not clear what that means, but it is clear that Establishment journalists aren’t going to quiet the charges of bias either. You don’t exactly see conservatives respecting established news outlets like the New York Times and CNN or the editorial staff that works there. Unless Facebook has suddenly grown a backbone, its rebooted News initiative will be another way for conservatives to badger the company into appeasement.

Facebook Exacerbates One Problem by Trying to Solve Another