Censorship at Facebook? Maybe Not. Intellectual Diversity? Maybe Not
We all saw the report: Anonymous sources claimed that Facebook employees have deliberately censored stories from the site’s “trending” topics that favored the conservative outlook.
Conservatives across the country were frustrated and angry, and the reason why ran deeper than simple indignation at unfair treatment. The frustration was more intense because media bias is a documented fact that politically and culturally conservative Americans have been grappling with for decades. The traditional press, across both print and broadcast media, famously tilts to the left. This holds both in explicit opinion commentary and in subtler, implicit ways, such as which stories are deemed worthy of straight news coverage and which are seen as red herrings to ignore.
But new media seemed to hold new promise for a level playing field. From the young days of the blogosphere in the early 2000s, conservative- and libertarian-leaning blogs gained huge followings, inflected major debates, and kept the “mainstream media” newly accountable.
As social media such as Facebook and Twitter gained prominence, Americans with views disdained by the traditional coastal media again found cause for optimism and new ways to organize and discuss the news of the day.
This is why the Facebook allegations felt so disappointing to so many. A digital platform that had seemed to determine popular stories by a neutral algorithm was instead running a subjective editorial desk and reportedly staffing it with young, left-leaning college grads who openly put their thumbs on the scale.
That’s why, this past Wednesday, I joined a group of other conservative leaders at Facebook headquarters to meet with Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and others from management. I came in with an open mind, eager to help explain conservative frustrations and discuss future solutions. And the spirit of the meeting was cordial and productive. Personally, I am extremely skeptical (to put it mildly) that there is some top-down conspiracy to weaponize Facebook to intentionally censor conservative views, and I hope that this is the beginning of serious efforts to combat the risk of systemic bias.
Facebook has a tremendous opportunity to out-innovate old media models and win over customers who are hungry for ways to separate the signal from the noise. But questions of editorial oversight and — even more important — intellectual and ideological diversity within Silicon Valley remain important issues that deserve serious solutions.
Facebook and other young, innovative companies have a massive opening to change the status quo in news aggregation by disrupting old patterns and helping citizens bypass “gatekeepers.” They can greatly improve the marketplace of ideas. But to do this, it is vital that new media avoid making old mistakes.I hope that last week’s meetings were just the beginning of serious efforts to combat the risk of systemic bias. Silicon Valley talks a great deal about diversity. Rightly so. But that has to include intellectual, cultural, and religious diversity, or else a golden opportunity could easily be wasted.