By Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk
AP — On Monday, Gizmodo reported that a former Facebook contractor had revealed the company discriminates against conservative news and news sources when curating the site’s “trending topics” section.
Facebook officials denied the allegations, but Sen. John Thune, R-N.D., the Commerce Committee chairman, sent a letter to Facebook demanding details about its news distribution efforts.
Does government have a role in overseeing Facebook’s news decisions? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.
Oh dear. Republicans are complaining about the media again.
It might be yawn-worthy except for one thing: They might have a point. Facebook has incredible power over the dissemination of news in this country. So much so that government regulation and scrutiny of the company might actually be in the best interest of U.S. citizens.
Maybe it’s time to start treating Facebook as a utility. And maybe Sen. Thune’s inquiry is the place to start.
Consider this: Digiday reported last month that Facebook’s control over traffic to news websites had reached unheard-of proportions. “Last year, Facebook surpassed Google as a referral source for publishers,” the tech website reported. “Some publishers now see upwards of 75 percent of their social traffic coming from Facebook.”
And the company wants more. Instead of merely linking to stories, videos and memes on news websites, Facebook is encouraging publishers to post that content directly to Facebook itself.
One other relevant fact: In the first quarter of 2016, Facebook reported it had 1.65 billion users around the world. Astonishing! The company additionally claims that users spend more than 50 minutes a day with Facebook and its sister apps, Instagram and Messenger.
If there were a real competitor out there, maybe the thing to do would be to toast Facebook’s success and wish it well. (Twitter, try as it might, doesn’t quite count.) But the free flow of news and information is essential to the workings of our democracy. Facebook — with its unparalleled access to the audience and ability to influence the financial fate of news organizations — has become too critical to that flow.
“The company’s power is vast,” Vox.com noted this week, “and that power is not always deployed in ways that are transparent and accountable.”
The U.S. government has a long — if somewhat neglected — history of trying to ensure media evenhandedness, from the so-called Fairness Doctrine on broadcast airwaves to requirements that keep companies from owning newspapers and TV stations within the same market. Facebook’s power might require updating those traditions for the 21st century.
News that Facebook tacks left is hardly surprising. Nor is it particularly shocking that Facebook employees have given more than $118,000 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, outstripping donations to other candidates by a sizable margin. Facebook employees flocking to Donald Trump’s campaign — now that would be news!
But the revelation that Facebook’s newsfeed curators evidently went out of their way to exclude right-leaning news sources and promote liberal news outlets should trouble everyone.
Facebook is the largest media company on the planet. CEO Mark Zuckerberg is vastly more influential than any of the press barons of old. Facebook has the power to reshape public opinion in ways William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer could only dream about.
That makes Facebook dangerous.
But the last thing Republicans should do is start regulating media companies again, tempting as it may be. It really isn’t the federal government’s job to ensure or enforce “fairness” in the media — history notwithstanding.
Truth is, the Fairness Doctrine wasn’t fair at all. Broadcasters complied with the rule by shutting out differing points of view and only airing the blandest of opinions. From time to time, presidents would use the Fairness Doctrine to squelch dissenting opinions. Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration used the rule to harass right-wing broadcasters. Richard Nixon used it to silence opponents of his Vietnam War policy. Only after the FCC repealed the rule in 1987 did the airwaves become safe again for robust disagreement.
Facebook is a publicly traded company and can do whatever it wants, as long as its shareholders (and maybe its users) are happy. Are they?
Although the site is huge, it isn’t really a monopoly. Readers have other options. (Yes, Twitter really does count.) There is no shortage of websites aggregating conservative content. Don’t people use bookmarks and RSS feeds anymore?
But if Facebook wants to make this problem go away, Zuckerberg and company should be a great deal more transparent about how it pushes and promotes content. If you’re going to be the largest media company on the planet, readers need to trust the source. No trust, no clicks. No clicks, no profits. It’s just good business.