While you’ve been taking a short breather from all-Trump-all-the-Time, Facebook’s trending bias has become “news.” Apparently Facebook’s contract workers responsible for “curating” (a word I’ve always thought sounded more appropriate for meat preservation) the Facebook trending feature have been accused of deliberately or unconsciously favoring “liberal” over “conservative” content. Senator Thune of South Dakota has called for an investigation. You can take three lessons from the flap. The third, about the freedom of the press, is most vital.
1. You Should Pay Attention to People Behind the Curtain
The wizards of the internet don’t want you to know this but nothing you experience online is without the touch of a human hand directly as in the case of Facebook trending curation or indirectly through some processing algorithm, electronic design decision or some other factor. Neutrality and transparency are marketing claims designed to engender your trust. People in companies like Google and Facebook endeavor, I am sure, to live up to the claims of their companies – but they are as fallible as any human, individually and collectively. People get distracted. People make mistakes. People get lazy and greedy. All of us are capable of evil. Power corrupts. The temptations of wealth and power abound online as in any other medium.
2. There is a Public Interest in the Structure and Conduct of Media
Partisans of one group or another want you to reject government interference in media when it suits their interest but you might find them taking an opposite view when it plays in their favor. From the earliest days of our Republic, when newspapers were granted subsidized postage rates, government has had a big hand in media. For better or worse, airwaves-broadcast media was long subject to exacting regulation with respect to news and regional market power. Public TV and Radio depend on government funds for 40 percent of the sector’s funding. Governments fostered growth of online media by providing sales tax exemptions not enjoyed by brick and mortar retailers, advertising in print. The reality is that citizens of a democratic republic require civic information to fulfill their duties. We have never relied exclusively on unfettered market sources to provide such information.
3. Freedom of the Press Applies to You, Facebook, and Everyone Else
The establishment “press” would like you to think of them as a specially protected class. Many “Professional journalists” make distinctions between their high-minded pursuit of truth which they feel should be shielded by law and the lowly work of advocates or activists with axes to grind, or the dumb algorithms and contract “curators” on Facebook. At the root this error is a common misinterpretation our constitution, which states in its first amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
We often conflate "the press" as a communication technology with 'the press" as a particular class of people engaged in journalism. However, “the press” in context of the first amendment is a means of expression, like speech and assembly. With each innovation in means, from telegraph to film, radio, TV, and now to the internet the meaning of our freedom of the press has expanded. Facebook denies responsibility for editorial decisions, claiming that they are just responding to user interest but the Corporation’s freedom of the press cannot be abridged.