Social Networks

Facebook's news censorship: Manipulative algorithms are nothing new

Once again, Facebook is in the doghouse. This time, the great social networking giant is being accused of censoring conservative news from its “trending” news section. According to Gizmodo, several ex Facebook “news curators” were told to inject stories into the trending module even if they were not being organically shared and to censor conservative publications. Facebook has denied all of this but if it turns out to be true, it shouldn’t be that surprising as algorithms on the internet manipulate what we see all the time. 

Robert Epstein, a US psychologist found in his study that Google has the power to “flip upwards of 25 per cent of the national elections in the world with no one knowing this is occurring”. Another study found how underrepresentation and gender stereotypes of certain careers in Google image search results can affect unconscious bias. One Swedish student during her project to do with senses googled the word “hand” and said all the images that came back were white. She started a World White Web project to draw attention to the issue.

So if algorithms are manipulating what we see on the internet, what makes this case particularly bad? Well for one, some would argue Facebook is being hypocritical as its going against its core principles. Another issue is the number of users that are using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook for news has increased. Last year, Pew Research found 63% of Facebook users use Facebook’s platform to get their news. This has risen from 2013 where only 47% of Facebook users said they got their news from Facebook.

Some argue that the tech giants should stop hiding behind their social media masks and admit they have become news organisations. Facebook’s Instant Articles program where publishers can directly host their content onto Facebook only adds fuel to the fire. At the moment the publishers retain some level of control – but for how long?

Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan has talked about his dismay of coming out of prison after six years only to find the web destroyed by Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In his piece on the Guardian, he wrote how bloggers were “rock stars back in 2008” and were the best place to “find alternative thoughts, news and analysis”. But now with Facebook, “algorithms have picked everything” for us. It is the algorithms that run the show now.  


Further reading:

Periscope & the clamour of tech brands hiring journalists


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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