Southern Baptist social media observers have expressed diverse reactions to allegations that Facebook “routinely suppressed” news of interest to conservative readers from the site’s “trending” news section.
National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) President Jerry Johnson said Facebook “must change if they want our trust and participation in their platform.” Meanwhile, social media expert Marty Duren of LifeWay Christian Resources and digital strategist Darrel Girardier of the Nashville-area Brentwood Baptist Church said Christians desiring to stay informed should not rely on Facebook as their sole news source.
A flurry of reactions ensued when the tech website Gizmodo published an article May 9 quoting anonymous former Facebook employees as stating “workers prevented stories about … conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential [trending] section even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.” The article also alleged popular stories by conservative media outlets were excluded from the trending module unless mainstream outlets covered the same events.
Facebook vice president Tom Stocky denied Gizmodo’s charges in a May 9 Facebook post, stating, “There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another.”
A week earlier, Gizmodo reported that Facebook’s trending module is generated by a team of journalists who access a list of trending topics generated by an algorithm and then select stories that will be displayed in the trending news module.
Gizmodo’s latest report charged that heavily trafficked topics which were nonetheless excluded from the trending module have included: former IRS official Lois Lerner’s alleged harassment of conservative groups, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the murder of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
The conservative website The Federalist argued May 3 that Facebook suppressed coverage of online videos posted by The Center for Medical Progress allegedly showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of body parts from aborted babies. A 2015 LifeWay Research survey found 43 percent of Americans were not aware of the videos.
Johnson, of NRB, said in a May 10 statement, “It’s time for Facebook to face the facts. Social media users expect a level playing field and are tired of Facebook’s one-sided neutrality. For some time, Facebook has shut down conservative pages or censored their comments. Now Facebook is caught burying conservative news stories and puffing liberal ones. Facebook must change if they want our trust and our participation on their platform.”
Johnson cited a study of Internet-based censorship by NRB’s John Milton Project for Free Speech, which noted 15 supposed instances of anti-conservative censorship by Facebook since 2012.
The allegations of conservative news suppression led Republican Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, to ask Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a May 10 letter to clarify the company’s news curation process. The national Republican Party said in a May 9 statement Facebook’s actions are “beyond disturbing,” especially given the company’s “power to greatly influence the presidential election.”
Girardier, Brentwood Baptist’s digital strategy director and a Christian digital strategy consultant, said Gizmodo’s allegations do not appear to have been confirmed by other news sources or investigations. But he said any newsfeed that involves human curation will exhibit bias.
“Facebook is a wonderful water cooler,” Girardier said. “It’s great for going and catching up with friends and finding out what’s going on in the world.”
Yet those “looking for news from a conservative evangelical perspective,” Girardier said, “need to get as close to the source as possible, which means you’re going to have to get outside of Facebook and not rely on Facebook as your news source.”
Even when Internet users follow trusted news sources on Facebook, they only see approximately 15 percent of those organizations’ posts, Girardier said. He advised seeking news from four to five different sources “to verify what is true.”
Duren, LifeWay’s manager of social media strategy, wrote in a May 10 blog post that any liberal bias at Facebook “is not important” because Facebook users control the content shared in their newsfeeds. Users also can “teach Facebook what [they] want to see and don’t want to see” in the trending module, hiding unwanted news stories by mousing over them and clicking on the small “x” that appears.
Ultimately, however, Facebook is not a news site, he said.
“Frankly,” Duren wrote, “if you’ve been using Facebook’s trending stories as your main source of news, your biggest problem isn’t that Facebook secretly manipulated the trending stories and may have misled you about what stories were actually trending. It’s that you’ve been using Facebook’s trending stories as your main source of news.”
Duren continued, “If Facebook suppressed every single conservative news story that came through its curation group (and there’s no evidence it suppressed most or even many such stories) you could still find the facts with a little effort. The burden is on the information consumer, not on Facebook, Google, Bing, Twitter or any other media.”
A Pew Research study released May 9 found that “Facebook sends by far the most mobile readers to news sites of any social media site.” Pew also found just 4 percent of Facebook users consider it their most important source of news.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)