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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 11, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Facebook plan to rank media by trustworthiness 'doomed to fail,' conservative says

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As Facebook steps up efforts to expose users to more trustworthy reporting, conservatives fear the shift could be the latest in what they see as a pattern of social media sites silencing right-leaning voices and magnifying liberal news sources.

At a meeting with media executives Tuesday following his keynote address at Facebook’s F8 developer conference, founder Mark Zuckerberg explained the social media platform plans to "dial up the intensity" of a system that will rank news organizations by trust. Organizations that score higher will be promoted in the News Feed and less trusted ones will be suppressed.

User surveys will be used to determine which sources are “broadly trusted.” According to HuffPost, Zuckerberg said he believes Facebook has an obligation to reduce polarization and help the public establish a common set of facts.

“It’s not useful if someone’s just kind of repeating the same thing and attempting to polarize or drive people to the extremes,” he said.

Zuckerberg first announced an intent to “prioritize news that is trustworthy, informative, and local” in a Facebook post on January 19. Rather than Facebook employees or experts making those decisions, he said it would be determined by how many users who are familiar with a source trust it.

“There's too much sensationalism, misinformation and polarization in the world today. Social media enables people to spread information faster than ever before, and if we don't specifically tackle these problems, then we end up amplifying them,” he wrote at the time.

According to Stephanie Martin, a professor at Southern Methodist University and editor of “Columns to Characters: The Presidency and the Press Enter the Digital Age,” Facebook has been trying to address concerns about fake news and propaganda since the 2016 election. This attempt to favor reliable sources appears to be the next step after an algorithm change in 2017 that cut back the amount of news showing up in users’ feeds.

“Facebook always resists the idea that it is itself a media site and a source of news, but everyone knows this is where people go for news,” Martin said.

Being branded as untrustworthy by Facebook could prove deeply damaging, but it could also elevate more professional and accurate conservative reporting.

“This cry of foul in advance is sort of straight from the conservative playbook,” Martin said. “They are now lumping Facebook in with the rest of the media as though ‘media’ is singular and not plural, and saying this means our outlets are going to be treated badly.”

Zuckerberg spoke to executives the same day 61 conservative leaders signed a joint statement accusing Facebook and other social media companies of widespread attempts to silence conservative voices.

“Social media censorship and online restriction of conservatives and their organizations have reached a crisis level,” said the statement released by the Media Research Center (MRC) and signed by publishers, advocates, watchdogs, former government officials, and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chair of the House Media Fairness Caucus.

The conservatives complained about instances of pro-gun and anti-abortion content being banned, allegedly skewed search results, preferential treatment for “anointed legacy media outlets,” and conservative tech employees facing career hurdles.

In the statement, they listed four steps they want Facebook, Twitter, and Google to take:

  1. Provide transparency in content policing decisions so they can be held accountable if one side of an issue is treated worse than the other.
  2. Define “hate speech” more clearly so users know what content falls into the category and vague definitions cannot be used to silence opinions.
  3. Embrace “viewpoint diversity” in employment decisions and welcome conservative groups as advisers alongside liberal partners like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
  4. Mirror the level of freedom of speech and expression enumerated in the First Amendment.

Facebook may already be taking steps that would alleviate some concerns. On Wednesday, Axios reported the company plans to launch an inquiry to root out anti-conservative bias led by a former Republican senator. A similar review will be conducted into claims of discrimination against minorities by the social media platform, led by a former ACLU attorney.

Former Sen. John Kyl and his team at law firm Covington and Burling will examine allegations of liberal bias at Facebook and on its services. They will also get feedback from conservative groups and advise Facebook on best practices going forward.

“I’m encouraged that they’ll conduct a full review & I’ll closely watch what steps they take to ensure their platform doesn’t discriminate,” House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., one of Facebook’s current congressional critics, tweeted in response to the announcement.

According to Axios, which first reported on the internal investigation, Facebook executives will also meet with experts at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“Getting outside feedback will help us improve over time — ensuring that we can more effectively serve the people on Facebook,” said Joel Kaplan, Facebook vice president of global public policy, in a statement to Gizmodo.

Don Irvine, chairman of conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media, welcomed the internal review and contrasted Facebook’s commitment to investigating the issue with inaction by some of its rivals.

“It appears that Facebook is willing to listen to leading conservative voices on the bias issue, which is more than I can say for other social media companies who have also been accused of a bias against conservatives,” Irvine said. “It remains to be seen whether or not anything will come of the Kyl-led inquiry, but it is a good start.”

Conservatives have found news of the Kyl probe heartening, but some remain wary that the user-based system of identifying reliable news sources will put right-leaning outlets at a disadvantage.

Those fears may not be unfounded. A study published by Yale psychologists in February found that even Republicans trust mainstream media sites like CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post more than overtly partisan ones like Breitbart and InfoWars.

According to Irvine, Facebook’s latest effort to police news feeds is “doomed to fail.”

“Considering Facebook's problems with fake news it's hard to see how user surveys will help them determine what news sources should be rated as trustworthy and which ones shouldn't be,” he said Thursday. “It's not clear to me how Facebook will be able to ensure that any side of the political spectrum won't game the system for their respective sides.”

With limited information available on how the trust-ranking works, Miller said it is difficult to judge its fairness or predict its results.

“If Facebook develops its algorithm based solely on public perception of trustworthiness, I would agree with conservative outlets that that is an insufficient means of assessment,” she said, adding that she expects other factors will be integrated as well.

Claims that Facebook discriminates against conservatives have been heating up for months, culminating in a House hearing last week that featured testimony by pro-Trump YouTubers Diamond and Silk. The women argued that Facebook’s algorithm changes had drastically curtailed the reach of their content and accused the company of demonetizing their videos.

Facebook has acknowledged that an “enforcement error” resulted in the pair being told their content was “unsafe.”

Conservative media outlets have lodged complaints of Facebook’s algorithm changes cutting into their page-views and their profits. Analysis by the Western Journal and the Outline claimed web traffic for conservative sites fell dramatically since January 2017 while interactions for some liberal sites remained steady, but that conclusion has not been independently verified.

Earlier in April, Zuckerberg testified before House and Senate committees about Facebook’s handling of users’ personal data. Several Republican lawmakers took the opportunity to question him publicly about alleged bias, including the treatment of Diamond and Silk.

Zuckerberg acknowledged that Silicon Valley is “an extremely left-leaning place,” but he insisted the company is committed to rooting out bias and welcoming all viewpoints.

Conservatives have so far been unimpressed by that commitment. The Media Research Center published a report in mid-April detailing many alleged incidents of censorship by Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube.

“It’s the new battleground of media bias. But it’s worse. That bias is not a war of ideas. It’s a war against ideas. It’s a clear effort to censor the conservative worldview from the public conversation,” MRC claimed in the report, titled “CENSORED! How Online Media Companies Are Suppressing Conservative Speech.”

The allegations include Twitter hiding anti-Democratic hashtags, pro-Clinton bias in Google search results, YouTube shutting down conservative channels, and firms relying on “radical leftist organizations” like the SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League to identify hate speech. The MRC also complained that current content-flagging systems could be gamed by liberal activists and warned that failure to treat liberal and conservative content equally could prompt government regulation.

Some reject the premise that Facebook is intentionally suppressing conservative thought. ThinkProgress, the news site of the liberal Center for American Progress, conducted an extensive review of Diamond and Silk’s Facebook performance data and found no evidence they were victims of discrimination.

According to the site, Crowdtangle data showed total interactions on the duo’s Facebook page were relatively steady over the last year and reached their highest levels after the alleged censorship began. During the same period, some liberal-leaning sites that also post videos saw their interactions drop.

Looking solely at video views, ThinkProgress observed Diamond and Silk’s monthly total did fall by 2.3 million between March 2017 and March 2018, but MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s page showed an even larger 4.8 million drop.

Social media analysis company Newswhip conducted a study in 2017 that found three times more conservative publishers than liberals on Facebook and calculated the conservative material received 2.5 times more engagement. Breitbart, the Independent Journal Review, The Blaze, Daily Caller, Daily Wire and Gateway Pundit were among conservative outlets far outperforming liberal news sites on the platform.

Facebook faced similar bias allegations in 2016 when content curators for the site’s “trending topics” section were accused of deliberately favoring liberal media outlets over conservative ones. Former curators told Gizmodo conservative topics and sources were often omitted because decisions were subject to the personal biases of staffers, many of whom were young liberal journalists.

Though the claims sparked an overhaul of the trending section, the company conducted an internal investigation and found no actual evidence of bias.

The new focus on trusted media outlets is only one step Facebook is now taking to address its fake news problem. Zuckerberg told executives Tuesday the company is also investing billions of dollars in artificial intelligence and human moderators to spot false stories and propaganda.

Given the unending controversy over the manipulation and exploitation of social media during the 2016 campaign, Martin said outlets across the ideological spectrum should be grappling with the changing nature of information and the challenge of preventing the spread of misinformation.

“When conservatives say automatically this means we’ll get the short end of the stick, they have to be careful not to exempt themselves from doing the necessary work to fix an urgent problem,” Martin said.

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