Mark Zuckerberg found himself in hot water last week when tech news publisher Gizmodo broke the story that Facebook staff “routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers.” Even if you’ve never used Facebook, it’s easily one of the most important stories about the Internet to be aware of.
The controversy centers on the $328 billion-valued social network’s “Trending News” section, which algorithmically presents the most popular news stories across a variety of topics, much like a traditional newspaper. Allegedly, employees known internally as “news curators” were instructed to remove conservative topics that were legitimately trending, include popular topics that weren’t actually trending, and eliminate any Facebook news entirely – good or bad.
Regardless of your political leanings, the revelation that a secret team with their own definition of “newsworthiness” has been controlling the information you get through Facebook should be cause for concern. Not because Facebook suppressed certain stories: as Gizmodo notes, this just means they act like “a traditional newsroom, reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation.” You should be concerned because, despite the fact that most people are aware of the biases of various newspapers and news organizations, the world was still surprised that one the most popular sites on the Internet, with all its algorithms and data, could be biased.
Facebook has 1.65 billion monthly active users, and those users spend, on average, fifty minutes a day on their platforms – more time than almost any other leisure activity, and as much time as Americans spend eating and drinking. The social network is actively working to bring another billion people online through providing Internet and essential services to new territories, and, as Quartz writer Leo Mirani notes, the result is that, for millions of users, Facebook is the Internet. Simply put, Facebook is a critical part of modern life for billions of people, and yet those billions know very little about the platform.
Mirani continues: “If the majority of the world’s online population spends time on Facebook, then policymakers, businesses, startups, developers, nonprofits, publishers, and anyone else interested in communicating with them will also, if they are to be effective, go to Facebook.”
This is why you should care about and be aware of Facebook bias – it is the lens through which the world will experience your brand and your business.
Plenty of successful organizations have failed to appreciate the control the world’s leading websites had over their business, and suffered for it. When Facebook changed its algorithm to downplay viral content, the cat videos and listicles Buzzfeed’s brand was built on obstructed them from executing their strategy to transition to becoming a publisher of award-winning longform content. A few months after Andreessen Horowitz led a $15 million investment in Rap Genius, a crowd-sourced lyrics site, Google eliminated all mention of the company from their search network as punishment for shady SEO tactics.
As power on the web consolidates to a few gigantic services like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, it is your responsibility as a leader to understand how leading technology affects you and your business. If you want to build your brand or your organization’s brand on the Internet, you need to understand that computers, websites, and algorithms are as fallible as the newspapers, distribution systems, and editors they replaced.
And, if you find yourself in the unenviable position of falling out of the good graces of Facebook, you should be ready with a backup plan.