The Senate’s Request of Facebook is Reactionary, Not Principled

Patrick Wheeler, Program Manager On May 11th, 2016

Topics: Big Data / Analytics Culture Governance Platforms Privacy Risk Management Social

The Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, John Thune (R-SD), sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week requesting detailed information on how the social media platform’s Trending Topics section is curated. The letter is in response to two recent Gizmodo articles that claim Facebook employees manipulated the trending section to minimize the relevance of conservative stories.

Senator Thune has requested a full account of the operations, organizational structure, methodology, and algorithms used to populate the section. The request demonstrates a lack of sophistication in his understanding of how the digital economy works.

His request strikes at the heart of how Facebook does business and monetizes the platform. If their methods for curating content are subject to outside review, the platform is no longer in control of its own business. Content curation is not only a common practice in the tech sector, but the way many websites, publishers, and digital businesses make money. It’s THE secret sauce to Facebook’s success. Ironically, content curation is also the fundamental role of newspaper editors writing headlines and determining which articles are featured on their front pages.

That’s not to say there shouldn’t be debate over the role platforms play in news media. Facebook and other social media platforms have become significant players in the news aggregation and curation game and therefore play a significant role in keeping the public informed. While not necessarily creators of news content themselves, tech platforms are now the primary distribution channel for a wide array of content, including political and breaking news. That’s a significant change for most media outlets and journalists and one that has been painful for the industry.

The fact that Facebook has been more aggressive than peers at trying to force content creators to publish directly to its platform is evidence that news content is migrating from newspapers and pay-walled websites to open digital platforms. This shift forces content creators to think differently about monetization strategies.

These business model changes are a key part to understanding why Facebook has a team working on its trending section and, as alleged, ‘injecting’ news content that isn’t trending into the list of topics. They are playing the role of editor to trending news stories – reviewing for relevance and elevating or lowering stories based on any number of factors. It’s critical to Facebook’s business that they be allowed the same discretion as news editors when curating content.

The larger debate about the role of technology platforms in news media is an important one. Determining what standards should exist for journalists, media outlets, and news aggregation sites can’t be handled haphazardly or undertaken through the lens of politics. If the Senate Commerce Committee is truly concerned about the future of news media, it should have that debate and be open to creating new standards for the entire news media industry. The debate should extend beyond Facebook and Twitter to traditional news media outlets like the Washington Post, MSNBC, and Fox News, as well as non-traditional media properties like the Huffington Post, Drudge Report and Mother Jones.

The reality is technology and digital companies are changing the rules in a host of sectors (including politics and government) and it’s important that we understand those changes. This academic year, the CDS focused its Britt Technology Impact Series on digital transformation and digital business models. The debate over news media isn’t one that we’re likely to see settled anytime soon, but for most business executives, it’s a challenge they’re living every day.

For more on the Britt Technology Impact Series or to watch videos from past sessions, visit us on the CDS website and YouTube channel.

Original Gizmodo Articles:
Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News
Want to Know What Facebook Really Thinks of Journalists? Here’s What Happened When It Hired Some
Senate Request: Thune Seeks Answers from Facebook on Political Manipulation Allegations
Statement by Vice President of Search at Facebook, Tom Stocky
Read More: Let’s Say Obvious Things about Facebook and Conservative News
Read More: Of Course Facebook Is Biased. That’s How Tech Works Today
Read More: The U.S. Senate Wants Mark Zuckerberg to Say Whether Facebook has been Manipulating the News

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