By now you may have heard the news that Facebook allegedly manipulates its “Trending Topics” algorithm to suppress conservative viewpoints:
Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.
After this Gizmodo story broke, Facebook predictably and categorically denied the charge, insisting that it has “rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality” that “do not permit the suppression of political perspectives.”
That may well be true, and given Facebook’s nearly unique online universality, I hope it is.
But apparently some congressional Republicans aren’t convinced, and the chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation has launched an inquiry into Facebook’s editorial practices, asking questions like, “Have Facebook news curators in fact manipulated the content of the Trending Topics section, either by targeting news stories related to conservative views for exclusion or by injecting non-trending content?”
Facebook’s answer will, presumably, again be a resounding “no.” But what if the site was manipulating news based on its ideological slant? As Trevor Timm notes at The Guardian, “Facebook has the ability to cripple a news organization with one click or a single change to its algorithm,” and that’s “a situation that news organizations have to grapple with and the public should be fully conscious of.”
But does that mean Congress should be getting involved here? Timm says no:
Facebook is private company, and as such they have the same robust rights under the first amendment as news organizations and other content distribution networks. They can publish what they want and when they want without government intervention. …
Imagine if Congress opened an investigation into the Guardian’s editorial choices for what they did and didn’t publish on their front page, or questioned the New York Times about what it said in its daily Page One meeting. The precedent set would be incredibly dangerous.
Writing at the Foundation for Economic Education, Ryan Radia makes a similar argument:
Facebook enjoys the right under the First Amendment to engage in editorial discretion with respect to the content it features on its social network, free from government manipulation — including political fishing expeditions. As Mercatus Center fellow Brent Skorup has explained at length, online intermediaries enjoy rights similar to those of newspapers to make editorial decisions about the messages they distribute and highlight. Just as the Supreme Court has held that newspapers don’t have to give space to politicians who want to rebut editorials they dislike, Facebook doesn’t have to give conservative news stories equal treatment when it decides which stories to list as Trending Topics.
Of course, by the same token, conservatives are free to stop using Facebook, or start their own social network — just as Facebook did when it upended MySpace a decade ago. Nor does it matter that Facebook supposedly curated its Trending Topics without informing its users, because non-commercial speech cannot be “false or misleading” by its nature — instead, it’s held to a more protective standard articulated by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan.
In short, even if Facebook is hiding conservative perspectives — and, frankly, it seems like ridiculously bad business to suppress the views of 37 percent of your largest national market — it’s none of Washington’s business.
Ultimately, this controversy can be traced to a broader confusion over the nature of censorship, and the key difference between a business or individual or website controlling speech on their private property, on the one hand, and the government prohibiting speech, on the other. Facebook has a right to favor or disfavor whatever content it wants on its own private website. It’s congressional intervention—not Facebook’s alleged manipulation—that poses the real threat to free speech here.