Controversy continues to swirl around Facebook censoring news sources and topics of a conservative nature.
Earlier this year, the social media giant first disclosed that it had a team that curated the news that it promoted on its website, then it proceeded to lay off that team in favor of engineers that selected stories through the use of algorithms.
But that only worked for a short time before it was discovered that fake news was seeping through the network’s filters. Later, Facebook admitted that there were still news curators working alongside the engineers.
In general, conservatives were getting increasingly frustrated by the lack of regulation of online news sources. Although Facebook is not a news-gathering organization per se, it re-posts stories from any number of “approved” news outlets to more people in the world than any other website, so it therefore has become the de-facto most popular online source of news for the greatest number of people in the world.
With more than a billion users worldwide and 200 million in the U.S. alone out of roughly 320 million total citizens, Facebook’s reach is incredibly broad and influential. One recent study reported that 44 percent of Americans get their news primarily from Facebook. In terms of news organizations and broadcasting companies, there’s never been anything like it either size-wise or influence-wise.
Traditional media organizations — television and radio networks — are bound to standards dictated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC acts as “the police of the airwaves” and maintains standards of decency that broadcasters are not permitted to violate.
If a media organization is found to have violated a rule they can be fined, as radio station WXRK was for Howard Stern’s use of profanity in the early 1990s or CBS was for Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” in the Superbowl halftime show of 2004.
For repeated violations, the FCC even has the power to revoke a company’s broadcasting license entirely, shutting it out of the marketplace completely if the agency wishes to. These threats keep public TV and radio content within certain standards, and those standards are not simply about decency.
For political candidates, there are several content rules which apply, namely:
- The Equal Time rule — This rule mandates that all broadcasters must give equal time for all major-party candidates for any particular office
- The Right of Rebuttal Rule — This rule mandates that broadcasters must give candidates an opportunity to rebut claims and charges made against them. Stations cannot attack or criticize candidates without giving them a chance to respond.
- The Fairness Doctrine — This rule states that any broadcaster that airs a program expressing a political point-of-view must give time for the airing of opposing views.Some critics of the FCC have claimed that these rules are not always enforced, particularly the last rule.
The FCC also mandates that no broadcasting company can have too big an influence unto themselves. For instance, there are rules about media companies being able to own newspapers and television stations in the same markets, or television and radio stations in the same markets.
However, since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, many of these restrictions have been loosened to the point where a small number of very large media conglomerates (such as Fox or Time Warner) own many such properties in many markets simultaneously. However, the principle of no one company dominating the nation’s airwaves remains.
While it’s true that newspapers and print media in general in America are not regulated as broadcast media is, most news in American newspapers originates from one of only a few news syndication/distribution agencies, such as The Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI) and Reuters.
Journalists working for one of these sources are held to extremely high standards and typically must attend respected and accredited journalism schools in the United States in order to get a job at one of these companies.
In turn, in journalism classes, students are taught important concepts in media coverage, including objectivity, transparency, accuracy, impartiality and resistance to propaganda. This is to maintain integrity and accountability and to engender the public trust.
There is a formal journalism “code of ethics” that graduates of these schools are expected to follow. Most major newspapers in America, using stories from these agencies, therefore make use of very high-quality writing from reporters who follow these established journalistic standards.
However, with the advent of the web, independent news outlets and websites have gained in popularity that do not source their stories from these agencies at all. Their writers in many cases did not attend journalism schools and are therefore not necessarily familiar with many of the concepts taught there.
A great number of these sites are utilized by Facebook as legitimate news sources, despite having dubious or undocumented sources and unaccredited writers with little to no journalism background. This means that social networks like Facebook, most based in and around Silicon Valley, now are determining the news that a significant percentage of Americans read on a daily basis.
Many of the news outlets viewable on Facebook may be familiar to its users, such as Occupy Democrats, U.S. Uncut and The Other 98%. Why Facebook has chosen to partner with these organizations is questionable. Large numbers of them have an obvious progressive/left-wing bent and promoted Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries until Sanders endorsed Clinton in July.
The founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, is a self-confessed liberal and Hillary Clinton donor along with most members of Facebook’s executive management. Therefore, it’s clear that many of these outlets fit into the vision of appropriate content among Facebook’s top ranks.
However, given the tremendous influence and reach Facebook has, the lack of opposing views has become an issue. To that end, Facebook has tapped conservative networks such as The Liberty Alliance, whose network of conservative sites (more than 100 at last count) spawn right-leaning posts and pages. Other sites and meme creators that are pro-Trump and have a distinctly Republican agenda have also been added.
But the real question is, who knows if these conservative outlets are reaching nearly the same number of people as the aforementioned pro-liberal sites and sources, whose audiences have been documented in the millions? With only Facebook knowing what the actual numbers are, it’s impossible to say how things are breaking down and what exactly is being presented on the screens of undecided voters.
One of the two Occupy Democrats’ co-founders, Rafael Rivero, has begun publishing anti-Trump memes in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ fizzling out of the race. A recent meme he posted showed a picture of Trump with a headline reading “Donald Trump is unqualified, unstable and unfit to lead. Share if you agree!” It was ultimately shared more than 40,000 times.
“It’s like a meme war,” Rivero said, “and politics is being won and lost on social media.”
With that being the case, and with Facebook reaching vast numbers of people that even broadcast networks can only dream about, it’s high time the government realized that online media is more like television and radio than newspapers.
Pseudo-journalists with less than noble intentions and far less separation between themselves and political parties have led to new media being completely unregulated and as biased as any syndicate worthy of the FCC’s nightmares. Either a new government agency is needed to watch over this new media, or it must be brought within the FCC’s purview.
The “hands-off” policies relating to Internet companies applied during the boom years of the web can no longer apply to social networks, especially Facebook. This company is crying out for regulation as an infant cries out for its mother. It’s time that much-desired greater oversight is provided.