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Facebook’s ‘Injection Tools’

On the uselessness of defending ‘what’s trending’

So it’s come to this. After half a century of right-wing invective targeting the alleged scourge of liberal media bias, conservative activists are up in arms over the (unverified) claim that social-media page designers are tweaking impartial news-feed algorithms—in a sinister leftward fashion, it need hardly be added.

The kerfuffle dates back to a Gizmodo dispatch published earlier this month, which aired the complaints of two unnamed erstwhile “curators” employed until recently in Facebook’s influential Trending Topics traffic engine. The former Facebookers, both conservatives, alleged that an algorithmic “injection tool” permitted higher-ups in the Trending Topics shop to artificially elevate certain stories and topics to the top of the list, even though user data indicated that these were not, as Facebook advertised, the stories spurring the highest levels of engagement in the user community. The beneficiaries of this selective procedure were left causes like the Black Lives Matter movement, the former Topic-Trenders alleged—while conservative events and newsmakers in a given news cycle—Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and the annual Conservative Political Action Committee gathering—were given short shrift, even though they allegedly drew robust levels of Facebook discussion. 

After fielding a stupefyingly fatuous request for testimony before the Commerce Committee headed up by Ken-doll South Dakota Republican senator John Thune, the Zuckerberg data empire went swiftly into damage-control mode. After paying ritual obeisance to Thune—something no self-respecting journalistic organization would want to do—Facebook’s leaders genially hosted a delegation of conservative political and media luminaries. And earlier this week, company officials announced some core revisions in the protocols that shape the anointment of bona fide Trending Topics. The company would, for instance, retire its past reliance on a stable of one thousand news sites and RSS feeds to assess the newsworthiness of a given topic, and the retirement of the in-house convention of assigning an “importance level” to a potentially trending story or subject. All the while, Facebook has stoutly denied that the selection of Trending Topics was animated by any personal or political agenda. The results of its in-house inquiry into the matter were summed up in typical bloodless corporatespeak:

We spoke with current reviewers and their supervisors, as well as a cross-section of former reviewers; spoke with our contractor; reviewed our guidelines, training and practices; examined the implementation of our oversight; and analyzed data on the effectiveness of our guidelines by reviewers. We also talked to leading conservatives, to gain valuable feedback and insights.

Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature. Our data analysis indicated that conservative and liberal topics are approved as trending topics at virtually identical rates. We were also unable to substantiate any of the specific allegations of politically-motivated suppression of particular subjects or sources. In fact, we confirmed that most of the subjects mentioned in media reports were included as trending topics on multiple occasions.

The clear hope of Facebook’s overlords is that this whole gnat-straining controversy will blur indistinguishably into the tech industry’s ritual incantation of enlightened-sounding managerial buzzwords. Critics will be calmed by the same placid C-suite lullabies that keep goggle-eyed news reviewers glued to their Palo Alto leaderboards: guidelines, training and practices, implementation of our oversight, valuable feedback and insights—and above all, of course, data analysis, the alibi of first resort for geeks constitutionally allergic to critical thinking. 

But there are just a few problems with this incantation of soporific Valley cant. First off, it wasn’t all that long ago when tech savants the world over rushed to baptize Facebook as the lead fomenter of the Arab Spring and of populist challenges to any and all autocrats and oligarchs representing the bad old information order. (This, indeed, remains the never-questioned orthodoxy among the soi-disant tech-diplomacy smart set, from Alec Ross to Andy Carvin. Talk about your injection tools!) 

Facebook users are no more a reliable gauge of what’s newsworthy than American Idol audiences were suited to serve as a war-crimes tribunal.

So how, exactly, can the same platform be hailed as a first-order means of marshalling leftish political revolution abroad, while also permitting itself to be brow-beaten into maintaining an anodyne portal for carefully neutralized political reportage in the decrepit duopoly known as the American media-political complex? 

Part of the answer, surely, lies in the category confusion that prompted the launch of the idiotic “Trending Topic” feature in the first place. Simply put, what’s popular is a fundamentally different thing from what’s newsworthy. Facebook users are no more a reliable gauge of the latter quality than American Idol audiences were suited to serve as a war-crimes tribunal.

Important news doesn’t care whether or not it’s “trending.” News isn’t meant to be something you find personally or ideologically reassuring; nor is it meant to redound to our placidly focus-grouped consumer choices, playing back our class-and-lifestyle profiles to us in the political equivalent of surroundsound, as the business models of both MSNBC and Fox News clearly wish it to be. No, to have any value as a public good, news has to shock, dismay, and anger its audience—and thereby to spur informed democratic publics to recognize the injustices and outrages they might otherwise prefer to ignore or downplay.

Early critics of the America mass-consumer republic such as Waldo Frank aired prophetic warnings about the propensity of news packaged for national audiences to devolve into glorified intellectual playthings. Frank, indeed, derided the American news culture of the 1920s and 1930s as an enterprise equivalent to the presentation of toys before a spoiled child. “A fresh plaything renews the child’s opportunity to say: this is mine,” Frank wrote. But if “toys become more frequent, value is gradually transferred from the toy to the toy’s novelty . . . The arrival of the toy, not the toy itself, becomes the event.” 

And so it is, nearly a century later, in our ballyhooed social-mediasphere. To cavil about the optimal placement of news fodder in a Trending Topics roster is to quarrel about which group of toddlers possesses the better toys. You can, indeed, readily chart the rote infantilization of our news publics via the ugly language Silicon Valley has adopted to promote its own sagacious news judgment. The neologism of news “curation,” for example, tells you that our cyber-lords view the ingestion of news content as a fundamentally aesthetic experience—only, because they typically sport Ivy League pedigrees (or the equally valid pedigree of an Ivy League dropout), their own toys of choice are visits to upmarket galleries and performance spaces, where they can hold the wonders of political and cultural expression at a reassuringly mystified arm’s length.

The curatorial ideal is, by definition, hostile to muckraking. It caters to the blinkered worldview of a puzzled aesthete. So the programming of online news content is prey to an order of moral idiocy far greater than the mischief purportedly wrought by bands of bias-mad news twisters. Yahoo News, where I spent a couple of lost years as a news manager, also employs user-driven algorithms to plunge readers into a news environment composed mainly of their own pre-existing consumer preferences. And as I type these words, one of the lead items on the Yahoo home page is video footage of an interview with racist vigilante killer George Zimmerman about the internet auction of the gun he used to slay unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. The only way to summarize this reprehensible filth in the language of news value would be “vicious racist speaks into microphone” (a rationale that, come to think of it, could also double as the mission statement for the acres of unfiltered Trump coverage now infesting our cable news airwaves).  But there it is, no doubt because Zimmerman’s legions of thuggish admirers have caused Yahoo search terms to spike, and the algorithms—which in Yahoo-land are branded as the sacred “Content Optimization and Relevance Engine”—to quiver in news-assessing unison.

You could, I suppose, make some countercase that the Zimmerman interview represents a triumph of algorithms leaning to the notional “right” in our nation’s baby-simple political schematic—and I have no doubt that armies of ideologically leftists are doing so in Facebook forums and Twitter timelines in this very instant, or at least once they’ve wearied of the tail-chasing Bruenig-ghazi scandal of the week. But there comes a point when all gadget-empowered ideological rooting interests should be given a timeout, so that we can all simply recognize a shitty and debased news product for what it is. And then maybe, just maybe, we can tell our Facebook overlords to take their stupid curated toys and go home.