If you haven't read the two big Gizmodo stories on the human curators of the Facebook "trending news" box, you should stop and go do that now. They are fascinating: the first one details the working conditions and practices of the people paid to select stories for that box, and the second one alleges that that group systematically suppressed conservative news headlines from appearing.
This second one was a bombshell, to say the least — any evidence of Facebook's power over the media always sparks controversy, but this particular bombshell touched on media censorship, politics, and the enormously polarized state of conservative politics around the election and Donald Trump. Kaboom.
(You should also read Ben Thompson's excellent analysis of the issue, which is dead on in describing the messy relationship between Facebook's algorithm and political media — especially in a world where media is more free and abundant than ever.)
But I think there are some very obvious things to say about Facebook and these stories.
1. The Facebook trending news box is fundamentally unimportant and uninteresting. Sorry, but it's true. The only part of Facebook that matters is the News Feed inside the mobile app, and the trending news box is not part of the mobile News Feed — it's buried deep inside the search menu. It might as well not exist. (Trending stories are in the mobile feed, but Facebook told Recode that humans only get to choose headlines, not what's trending, and the headlines don't show up in the mobile feed.) On desktop, where it's at least visible, it's on the right rail under event invites and birthday notifications. The right rail on a desktop website is perhaps the least important real estate in media; it mostly still exists because it's a good place to stick an ad.
2. The Facebook trending news box also completely sucks. It's basically a cable news ticker with worse taste and more celebrity selfie posts. It should either go away or get dramatically better.
The Facebook trending news box completely sucks
3. Facebook is sponsoring the GOP convention and Facebook board member Peter Thiel is a Trump delegate, even though Mark Zuckerberg seemed to take some shots at Trump at the F8 developer conference. All of these things are more material to relationship between Facebook and conservative media than the trending news box, which, again, is invisible garbage.
4. The two Gizmodo stories are contradictory in their theses: the first one details people who don't like their jobs living in fear of being replaced by an algorithm, and the second one says those people made subjective, under-the-table decisions to suppress certain news from appearing. I don't know about you, but that sounds like an excellent reason for getting rid of the people and replacing them with an algorithm, no?
5. Of course, algorithms aren't neutral, which is the real issue. Facebook is a powerful media gatekeeper because of the artificial scarcity of the News Feed — unlike, Twitter, which blasts users with a firehose of content, Facebook's News Feed algorithm controls what you see from all the people and organizations you follow. And changes to the News Feed algorithm divert enormous amounts of attention: last year Facebook was sending massive amounts of traffic to websites, but earlier this year Facebook prioritized video and that traffic dipped sharply. This month Facebook is prioritizing live video, so the media started making live videos. When media people want to complain, they complain about having to chase Facebook, because it feels like Facebook has a ton of control over the media. (Disclosure: Facebook is paying Verge parent company Vox Media to create Facebook Live videos.)
changes to the News Feed algorithm divert enormous amounts of attention
6. Almost all of media consumption is moving to mobile devices, and Facebook and its other massively popular apps like Instagram and Messenger represent the best and fastest way to get in front of a mobile audience. The entire game is happening inside app icons on the home screen, not web browsers.
7. All that means Facebook is a new kind of media gatekeeper: one that decides what shows up on the screen of your mobile phone. That is an extraordinary amount of power.
8. Conservative media has always thrived on playing the underdog — Fox News still refers to the "mainstream media" even though it is the most popular cable news channel in the country. I spent my childhood listening to conservative talk radio in my dad's car; I am not sure what would become of those programs if they didn't have the biased liberal media to complain about.
9. Facebook has become a powerful media gatekeeper, and allegations that it is somehow suppressing conservative voices is basically catnip for conservative media.
10. The entire Republican party is in disarray because of Donald Trump, who successfully rode a wave of social media to the Republican presidential nomination — social media that was shared by people on Facebook and amplified by Facebook's algorithm displaying what was shared to audiences that might like it.
allegations of facebook bias are catnip for conservative media
11. You might notice the extreme disconnect between the idea of Facebook suppressing conservative speech and the rise of an outsider conservative politician who came to power by "speaking his mind" in ways that basically no one in either party or the media really endorsed, but spread like wildfire on social platforms like Facebook because it connected with long-simmering frustrations.
12. To be more clear: it's pretty weird to complain about human curators maybe not posting links to conservative stories in a garbage nothing box when at the same time Donald Trump says crazy racist shit and Facebook's algorithm serves it up to an eager audience of millions instantly.
13. Facebook's algorithm has upsides: it revealed, in concrete ways, the extreme interest people have in stories about race, class, and gender. Tons of news organizations are investing in that kind of coverage because it does so well on Facebook and other social platforms. That is probably a good thing!
14. This is where I make a joke about our relationship with Facebook being complicated, but honestly I don't have the heart.