Yuan: Not So Neutral After All

by Ziqin Yuan | 5/11/16 5:30pm

As students, we must use social media sites such as Facebook with some distance and skepticism, recognizing the power they have over us. Almost all college students use Facebook; since its rise in the mid-2000s, it has become linked with social status, news and even activism. This holds especially true with the relatively new release of the trending articles sidebar — now, when news breaks, for many of us it breaks on Facebook first.

Facebook’s chief executive and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is very aware of this fact, and he has been actively working toward making Facebook more than just a social media platform but also a news platform. In a Q&A session last year, he wrote that, “People discover and read a lot of news content on Facebook, so we spend a lot of time making this experience as good as possible.” He went on to explain, “When news is as fast as everything else on Facebook, people will naturally read a lot more news. That will be good for helping people be more informed about the world, and it will be good for the news ecosystem because it will deliver more traffic.”

Yet Facebook is more powerful than traditional news sources such as NBC or CNN. Unlike the more traditional news sources, Facebook does not have a clear platform and, more importantly, is not expected to have one. And because of that, it can influence people much more subtly and effectively.

Michael Nunez’s May 9 Gizmodo article on Facebook’s trending news section emphasizes this point. Facebook’s help section explains that “trending shows you a list of topics and hashtags that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook,” clearly stating that the list is based on popularity. According to Gizmodo, however, former Facebook employees, internally known as “news curators,” attested that they were told to suppress stories related to conservative readers and to inject stories their managers valued more. The scary part is how well this worked — some topics that had not been popular at all became extremely popular after being put on the trending list. On the other hand, the article notes that some topics that were suppressed included former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report; Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was murdered in 2013; and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder.

Facebook responded to the article on Tuesday, denying Gizmodo’s allegations that it suppressed conservative stories. Regardless of the truth of the allegations, they bring up an important point — social media platforms such as Facebook have a huge amount of power over what we see and, thus, what we believe.

Even if stories are deliberately injected into Facebook’s trending news section, some may argue that that is not necessarily bad — especially if, for example, the stories were those that were being covered by other traditional news sources and meant to educate the public. But even so, we need to be aware of the fact that a social media platform may manipulate what we see and thus manipulate us into learning what the people behind it think is valuable.

This applies to other platforms, too. Instagram, for example, has started to curate advertisements into users’ feeds based on user activity. Though platforms are not necessarily changing their algorithms to emphasize some stories and suppress others, they have a huge potential to do so, and we should be increasingly aware of that as we become increasingly linked to the internet and social media.

A 2013 study by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University showed that 87 percent of college students used Facebook; the number now is likely higher. In 2014, researchers at Baylor University found that students spent on average over half an hour a day on Facebook. I personally check Facebook and Instagram multiple times a day, as do most of my friends. Students as a whole are attached to and constantly use social media sites, much more so than other sources of information — and the creators of social media platforms are designing increasingly complex algorithms meant to lure in readers. This reliance on social media means that we should take everything it presents us with a grain of salt, remembering that people have their own beliefs and that even algorithms need to be made by people.