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Does Facebook change what you see on the internet?

Is Facebook really suppressing conservative news? The ‘revelations’ from ex Facebook employees definitely caused a stir at a politically sensitive time in the US. Mark Zuckerberg has now responded to the claims saying they “are conducting a full investigation to ensure our teams upheld the integrity of this product.” but so far they “have found no evidence that this report is true.” Previous Facebook experiments have shown how influential the site can be in changing voting habits, so if they were suppressing conservative news the impact could be pretty significant.

Whether the allegations are true or not, sites like Facebook already have a big impact on what we are exposed to on the internet. The issue in this case focused on the way a small curatorial team apparently prioritises the key stories shown to users. But focusing on this one issue detracts from the massive impact Facebook continues to have on content across the internet (which started long before the trending section in question was created in 2014).

Changes to its news-feed algorithm often forces other sites to change the way they produce content

Facebook is an incredibly important portal to other sites. It is such an important gatekeeper that changes to its news-feed algorithm often force other sites to change the way they produce content. The algorithm is occasionally updated to keep on top of new data or to push new types of content such as video over text articles. It is important to remember that whatever the algorithm does will always be based on value judgements made by Facebook employees. Past changes have been behind the sudden explosion in particular styles of headlines and have even resulted in companies like Upworthy laying of staff and refocusing on video content to get more Facebook hits.

You only have to look at the example of the Ferguson riots in 2014 to see what kind of wider impact curating news feeds can have. While Twitter streams were filled with thousands of #ferguson tweets and information about the riots, the Facebook news feeds of the same people tweeting lacked virtually any mention of what was happening. Many people were perplexed at why there was such a big difference in the content they were seeing- it was not clear to users that Facebook’s algorithm was deciding not to show specific content, let alone how it made those choices.

Facebook is only one of the key ‘gatekeepers’ to the internet. Search engine impartiality is an ongoing and highly charged debate. People tend to feel very uncomfortable with the idea that any of the content they see has been cherry picked. Early on Google won out against some of its rivals because of its impartiality but it has since made some ‘editorial’ decisions to adjust search result standings in very rare cases.

Not just gatekeepers

But now these gatekeepers are also becoming information curators and this only makes the issue of impartiality even more important. Facebook is a prime example but Google is also starting to include algorithm-curated information at the top of many search results. Usually there is a link to the original website but it is not always transparent where the information comes from. And this is the big issue - transparency. This is the issue at the heart of the Facebook allegations, we just don’t know what editorial judgements are being made.

This issue is only going to become more important as AI assistants like Siri, Alexa and Cortana replace existing ways of accessing the internet. Getting information from a talking machine is very different to looking at a list of search results. It requires a certain level of curation- how boring would it be if you asked Google Now a question and it spent two hours reading out all the possible search results rather than just giving you an answer. AI assistants would be short lived if they followed that approach.

Without knowing where information comes from, whether there is an agenda behind what it is saying, how can you give it any credibility?

So these companies are having to exercise a lot more editorial judgment about the information they present and where it comes from. Asking Amazon’s AI assistant, Alexa, for the news will by default give you the hourly update from NPR News. Amazon doesn’t make it clear why it makes NPR its default but at least it still tells you. It is possible to change Alexa’s preferences but you have to dig deep to find the option. For other factual content it doesn’t always readily provide a reference (though apparently it does keep a list of searches and sources which are accessible via an app- but doesn't that defeat the point of voice search a little?). Without knowing where information comes from, whether there is an agenda behind what it is saying, how can you give it any credibility?

The question then is, does this matter and if it does what should we do about it? Considering the power and sway these companies hold we cannot let them make these judgements without some sort of transparency or oversight but how we go about that is a difficult question. Do we need to regulate the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon in the same way as we regulate other news providers? Should they be required to adhere to regulation like the IPSO’s Editor’s Code of Practice?

A new approach

In recognition of these challenges Singapore has created a new agency- the Info-communications and Media Development Authority (IMDA)- bringing together two existing organisations looking at information communications and media separately. It will focus on deepening and regulating the convergence of the infocomm and media sectors in a ‘holistic’ and integrated way. It’s not clear how these internet companies might be regulated, whether they will now be considered as media organisations and therefore have to get the required licences. Singapore has previously required small and large news websites to apply for licenses in order to create a more consistent regulatory framework with the papers and TV stations so watch this space.

Perhaps we will finally start to see people take more notice of these concerns. Hopefully the Facebook allegations will help raise the profile of these wider issues and the need for some sort of regulation- but I won't hold my breath. 


Harry Armstrong

Harry Armstrong

Harry Armstrong

Head of Technology Futures

Harry led Nesta’s futures and emerging technology work.

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