I was as disturbed as anyone at the news that Facebook has been gaming its own influential trending topics list, suppressing conservative news stories and inserting other stories management felt were important.
But does Congress really need to get involved?
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee demanded on Tuesday that Facebook explain how it handles news articles in its “trending” list, responding to a report that staff members had intentionally suppressed articles from conservative sources.
In a letter, the chairman, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, asked Facebook to describe the steps it was taking to investigate the claims and to provide any records about articles that its news curators had excluded or added. Mr. Thune also asked directly whether the curators had “in fact manipulated the content,” something Facebook denied in a statement on Monday.
“If there’s any level of subjectivity associated with it, or if, as reports have suggested that there might have been, an attempt to suppress conservative stories or keep them from trending and get other stories out there, I think it’s important for people to know that,” Mr. Thune told reporters on Tuesday. “That’s just a matter of transparency and honesty, and there shouldn’t be any attempt to mislead the American public.”
I agree with Senator Thune that Facebook should be transparent with the public about these matters. That said, the last thing we want is for the government to get the idea that they’re the arbiters of fairness on the internet. I do not want to set a precedent whereby they appropriate to themselves the authority to regulate content on the internet for fairness.
Because a politically-driven internet fairness campaign is going to be worse – by several orders of magnitude – than Facebook employees blocking Glenn Beck articles.
This is a problem the market can, and should, sort out. If Americans get the sense that Facebook can’t be trusted, that the company is trying to promote certain political agendas over others (be it consciously or not), they’ll find an alternative.
Facebook is a dominant player – probably the dominant player – in the social media landscape. But there are alternatives, and there will probably be more if Facebook continues to lose the public’s trust.