When Facebook hosted a group of leading conservatives to its campus this week, it pledged to open a new dialogue about trust. "I know many conservatives don’t trust that our platform surfaces content without a political bias," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post after the meeting. "I wanted to hear their concerns personally and have an open conversation about how we can build trust." But "trust" is such a fraught question when it comes to Facebook that the attempt feels downright quixotic.
Facebook’s confab with conservatives came a couple weeks after a pair of reports in Gizmodo that cast doubt on the content of Trending Topics, a roundup of stories popular on the social network. The first piece of news was that humans could insert stories into the widget — Facebook had previously said they didn’t. (How can we build trust, the man asks!) The second piece of news was that one anonymous former contractor said his bosses prevented him from including stories of interest to conservatives in the widget. (His anonymous coworkers disagreed that this happened.)
Two weeks of outrage followed, culminating in a Congressional inquiry led by Senator John Thune (R-SD). In response, Zuckerberg invited a group including conservative radio host Glenn Beck, former Republican Senator Jim DeMint, and pundit Tucker Carlson to air their concerns at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters. The invitation was generally well received — Beck wrote later that, "Walking out of the meeting, I was convinced that Facebook is behaving appropriately and trying to do the right thing."
We'll always have questions about what Facebook is and isn't showing us
As a public-relations move, the Menlo Park summit offered wins all around. Facebook signaled its respect for a group whose political opinions often differ from its employees’, and conservative attendees appeared powerful for having commanded the attention of an incredibly powerful — and popular — tech company. But while it may quiet doubts for a time, Facebook’s trust issues are going to linger. The company insists it is open to all points of view, and can point to credible evidence that its platform is used as effectively by conservatives as it is anyone else. But from now on, we’ll always have questions — as we always should have — about what Facebook is and isn’t showing us.
Accusing large institutions of bias is the national pastime of the modern conservative movement. Whether it’s the federal government or The New York Times, powerful institutions have become permanent sources of outrage for conservative groups. By adopting the practices of the dreaded mainstream media — hiring journalists as editors and empowering them to choose the stories that 1.6 billion people see — Facebook became the mainstream media, at least in some eyes. That’s why it wasn’t a surprise to see conservative sites like The Federalists declaring Wednesday’s meeting a sham before it even took place. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg has supported progressive causes from LGBT rights to immigration reforms. And so, of course, conservative doubts will remain — conservatives even doubt the conservatives who accepted the invitation to Facebook. Typically conservatives support corporations. But the next time a story important to conservatives isn’t getting play in Trending Topics or the News Feed, expect to hear about it.
A storied history of breaching users' trust
Facebook has a storied history of breaching its users’ trust in other ways. It might be hard for you to trust a company if it had, say, selectively disabled access to its Android app to see what users would do. Or if it altered the News Feed to manipulate people’s emotions without their permission. Or if it posted your activities on other websites without your permission. Facebook did all three, and it’s hardly mattered. The company has always operated on the outer edges of our tolerance: we stay because our friends are there, and because of the hypnotic power of the News Feed. To the innocents only now discovering Facebook’s interests do not always align with their own: do a little reading. The Trending Topics flap may have opened a new dimension of skepticism around Facebook’s products. But there are others.
There’s no practical way to establish trust with a software company. Even if you were inclined to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt about its commitment to a "neutral platform," how would you verify it was telling the truth? The great bulk of Facebook content is consumed in the News Feed, the company’s most lucrative product by orders of magnitude. The algorithms that select which stories appear there are the secret formula that led Facebook to a market capitalization of more than $330 billion. Absent a court order, the company is never going to open them for inspection. The company may indeed work to make sure the feed is "impartial," insofar as it does not penalize stories on a partisan basis. But you will always, always have to take Facebook’s word for it. (For a good list of the opaque human decisions that go into the development of the News Feed algorithm, see this post.)
None of which is to say that Facebook was wrong to invite conservatives to its campus. It was worth it alone for Beck’s Medium post the next day, which pivoted the discussion to why conservatives were attempting to interfere with the free market. And generally, I believe Zuckerberg is sincere in his intention to keep Facebook open to all ideas. (Particularly if they’re video ideas!) As he noted, conservative figures and media outlets are among the most popular on the platform. Facebook has no interest in driving them away, even if helps the occasional conspiracy theory about President Obama being a Lombax from the Ratchet & Clank universe go viral.
It isn't always neutral
I take Facebook at its word when it says it wasn’t manipulating Trending Topics — its business heavily incentivizes it not to operate that way. But it is isn’t always neutral. Consider the way it altered its product in India during the debate over its Free Basics program, which was derailed over net neutrality concerns. Everyone who logged in to Facebook in India received a message urging them to contact legislators in support of Free Basics; even those who did not complained Facebook had messaged their friends saying they did.
And so whatever becomes of Trending Topics, doubts about Facebook and journalism will persist. The audience is wary, the stakes are high, and the software is subject to suspicion. The only thing you can really trust Facebook to do is act in its interests.