The Real Facebook Controversy

Logging into Facebook and checking the newsfeed is something that most people do everyday without really considering its implications. According to recent statistics, people of all ages are doing this more often and for more reasons than ever before.

Facebook is now the world’s largest and most powerful media organization. People are using it to find out about more than just their friends; they’re using it to discover what’s happening in the world. And for many people, it has become their primary news source.

Although Facebook is expected to provide the news, it doesn’t operate like a traditional news organization. The newsfeed module is curated by computer algorithms that don’t maintain the same standards of objective reporting that conventional media strives for.

“The idea that algorithms are neutral, unbiased, objective, mathematical … is the most dangerous idea facing the 21st century public sphere” – Zeynep Tufecki, informational and library science professor.

Facebook doesn’t produce the news that exists on its platform, but they do select which versions its users see. Computer algorithms choose the content that appears in the newsfeed module based on a user’s activity. Recently, the ‘Trending Topics’ module became a subject of controversy because leaked documents revealed the role of human intervention in its assembly.

This is a serious issue not only because of Facebook’s growing power as a media juggernaut, but because the public is becoming more vulnerable to manipulation. By limiting exposure to varied opinions, the public becomes less informed and the conditions for bias are created. Some solutions have been proposed that address this looming threat, but nothing has been done to sufficiently address it.

A U.S. Senator has demanded that Facebook answer for its alleged political bias and Mark Zuckerberg has responded. But Facebook aside, a major concern is being overlooked; if the public begins to rely upon any single source to compile all of its information, then one of the most effective tools of a functioning democracy—a well-informed public—is being dismantled.

Where do you get your news from? Do you believe that Facebook can influence the public’s political beliefs? What’s better or worse: computer algorithms or human intervention?

Update: We recently interviewed UBC students about their online news sources. While every student we spoke with uses some form of social media to stay informed, we found that nearly all are relying on Facebook. They’re mostly going to Facebook for news because it’s easier and more personalized than traditional media sources like newspapers and television.

We asked students if they were aware of the influence of getting the news from social media outlets like Facebook. Most were aware of its disadvantages, but also accepting of these limitations. Students are not using social media to get the news out of ignorance of its restrictions; they’re using social media to get the news because traditional media has failed to adapt to their lifestyles and technology.

What does the future hold for news media? Students we spoke with didn’t state that they had any preference for one particular form of social media, be it Facebook or otherwise, and most often checked several at once. They favoured services like Reddit and Facebook because they aggregated news from different sources and were somewhat customizable. Perhaps, if traditional news media were adapt these features, students would be more likely to use their services.

Another update: We spoke with associate professor and Emmy award-winning journalist, Peter Klein, about the influence of Facebook. Check out his professional opinion on how Facebook affects our understanding of the world. 

Leave a Reply