Facebook’s news service itself hit the news this week for an alleged bias towards left-wing news and systematic demotion of “conservative news”. Former Facebook employees spoke to Gizmondo about regularly tinkering with the trending news topics, altering what is brought to the attention of millions of users and this news itself was perhaps less shocking than the revelation that Facebook’s news itself is curated by real flesh-and-blood people rather than a variant on their much-vaunted algorithm.
Since it launched in January 2014, the Trending Topics section of Facebook has been generally seen as a purely mathematical unit by most users, reflecting the content which other users are viewing and sharing most frequently. If it was thought about at all it might be that this could be adjusted to be relevant to the geographic area a user is based in but the idea that in the end it’s directed by human bias seems oddly disquieting and this in itself got us thinking about the nature of content and trust on social networks.
We entrust a huge amount of information, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to social networks and the usage of that information is a topic whose heat will only increase as the sheer mass of it and its uses increase exponentially. In our daily lives we use this information to target advertising, offers and general information at people to whom we hope it will be useful – exciting even – and this miracle of modern marketing only gets more detailed in offering.
While the building of an edifice like Facebook is the work of many millions of hours for human scientists, researchers, coders and more, the day-to-day running of it is the job of specially created programs and systems. No machine is completely free of the bias of the people who made it, ideologically neutral, but machines are at least thought to be brutally even-handed in their treatment of information. With these allegations we need to re-think our relationship with the trending topics – their manipulation, for whatever end, is an oddly reversed wake-up call as the majority of the population sleep-walk into the meta-information age where personalised advertising stalks every device.