Does Facebook Need to Be Fair?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
In this video, Rob outlines all the ways Facebook *could* rig an election. Among them: manipulating the newsfeed algorithm, blacklisting stories in their trending news section, and selectively deploying the “I Voted” module:
Though Facebook says it won’t use that power, the company last week drew criticism over the way it has curated its “Trending” module. Here’s Rob with details:

In at least one non-negligible way, Facebook joined journalism’s dirty ranks [last] week, as the company found itself accused of having a liberal bias. And perhaps it really does. A series of Gizmodo reports have raised new information about how the company’s “Trending” module works. “Trending” is the list of popular headlines that appears in the top right of; it also appears under the search bar in its ubiquitous mobile app. While many users believed that this module was compiled algorithmically, Gizmodo (and now The Guardian) have revealed that humans, working on contract for the company, guide its creation every step of the way. What’s more, these workers (often Ivy-educated twenty-somethings) “routinely suppressed conservative news,” according to the allegations of one former employee who talked to Gizmodo.

In an attempt to appease concerns over partisan bias, Mark Zuckerberg invited a bunch of conservative media figures to Facebook HQ this week. One of them was Glenn Beck, who took to Medium yesterday to describe “what disturbed me about the Facebook meeting.” His most highlighted quote:

It was like affirmative action for conservatives. When did conservatives start demanding quotas AND diversity training AND less people from Ivy League Colleges. I sat there, looking around the room at ‘our side’ wondering, ‘Who are we?’ Who am I?

An Atlantic reader thinks that Facebook pushing any political preference would be bad for business:

Facebook doesn’t need to be fair any more than Fox News or MSNBC or HuffPo or anyone else who has a clear political slant. But if they're not trying to be fair, then they’re subject to the same ridicule and declining status that those other outlets have faced, and over time, they whittle their audience down to a concentrated niche. It’s in Facebook's commercial interests not to exclusively buy into a political point of view.

This reader, on the other hand, doesn’t think a clear political slant would necessarily hurt the company’s bottom line:

Facebook sells advertising—that is their core business. So if their algorithm found that favoring left-wing politics is better for advertising dollars, that is what they are going to do. If it helps their advertising revenues to claim the moon is made of cheese, they will do so as well. Rest assured they have done the data analysis and asked this question. That is all there is to it.

But, as this next reader suggests, would a trending module by any other name smell as sweet?

Facebook should stop suggesting that its “trending” news is news that is actually, you know, trending. It should select a more accurate title. Something like “Much Glorious And Inspirational News Selected by Ministry of Information and Personally Approved By Facebook Commissars.”

Thoughts on whether Facebook should stay politically neutral? Let us know.