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20 May 2016

Is Facebook’s newsfeed really biased against conservatives – and, if not, should it be?

There is no such thing as objective journalism, and in the case of Facebook, no requirement to be objective.

By Laurie Penny

It was a hectic spring morning at the height of the Ukraine crisis. On the radio, newscasters were calmly reporting on the body count, the possible involvement of other world powers, the possibility of nuclear weapons being used. And then, just as I was wondering where I could fit a bunker in my flat, without missing a beat, BBC Radio 4 cut to a programme about standing desks. Standing desks!

There were interviews with medical experts on the health benefits of standing desks (uncertain). We got to hear from a man who used a standing desk at work (he was pro) and then from several of his colleagues (not bothered either way). And suddenly, the world felt a little less threatening. Somewhere, someone had taken the decision that, even if we were all going to die in a radioactive firestorm tomorrow, today we’ve got an hour of content about office furniture and, goddammit, we’re going to broadcast that content. I can cope with this, I thought. Maybe I’ll instal a standing desk in the bunker. I hear it’s good for your back.

The desk incident reminded me that the idea of bias in journalism is more complicated than anyone seems willing to admit. There are not many things I’m proud of as a British person and a jobbing hack, but the BBC is one of them. The BBC is fighting to preserve its status as a public broadcaster funded by, but not answerable to, the British state, after what appears to be a concerted effort by the Conservative government to intimidate it.

Meanwhile, in the US, Facebook has been accused of left-wing bias, after it was revealed that journalists working on its news service were able to “blacklist” certain topics and promote others: editing, as we used to call it. Republicans seized on comments by Mark Zuckerberg in which he appeared to suggest that Donald Trump is not a very nice man to claim that Facebook is “censoring” right-wing opinions.

In this struggle for power, there are two types of media monopoly in play: the old and the new. Facebook, unlike the BBC, is not a state-funded broadcaster. Facebook is a broadcaster with far more power than a great many states – but it somehow still insists that it is just a tech company.

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Can you imagine what the world would be like if the BBC had the power and resources of Facebook? Billions of dollars would be going towards the development of a robot exoskeleton to ensure that David Attenborough lives for ever. The alien world episodes of Doctor Who would be filmed somewhere exotic rather than a Cardiff quarry and Mary Berry would be able to use her laser eyes to kill anyone who turned out a substandard pastry case.

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The latest Facebook consternation is partly down to the revelation that human journalists are responsible for the site’s “trending” feature – which is a big source of news for its one billion users – rather than
algorithms. Humans, you see, cannot be trusted to be completely objective. By contrast, it’s much more reassuring to hand control to an algorithm designed by persons unknown to tweak your perception of the important news stories of the day in order to cement a giant global corporation’s control of your social network. Facebook already makes decisions about what you can see and what you can’t. Female nipples are not to be shown, because the sight of a woman breastfeeding might offend someone in Saudi Arabia. Technology is never neutral and we might not want it to be, anyway.

Similarly, the BBC often attempts “balance” by getting right-wing nut jobs and left-wing provocateurs to sock it out on TV for four and a half minutes while Emily Maitlis tries to keep a straight face, but that’s not the same thing as neutrality.

For one thing, the nut jobs and the provocateurs often went to the same schools. “Balance” is not just about left and right. It’s also about class, culture and background. And both the BBC and new media companies such as Facebook employ a remarkably homogeneous line-up. Facebook’s core technology workers are 94 per cent white or Asian and 85 per cent male; a third of BBC executives are Oxbridge-educated. Curiously, this demographic bias is not considered a risk to their “objectivity”.

Like the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, along with the rest of Britain, I don’t always see my unique viewpoint represented on the BBC. The difference is that I am in no position to stuff the BBC board with people sympathetic to my personal causes and tastes, which is a good thing, because if I were, it would be wall-to-wall feminist commentary, Doctor Who, and feminist commentary about Doctor Who – and then how would I know what to think about standing desks?

Conservatives seem to believe that power gives them a right to dictate what is said about them, and by whom. In the US, Zuckerberg has agreed to meet with right-wing leaders to discuss their grievances. In the UK, ITV was told it would “face consequences” for not giving anti-EU Conservatives the debate line-up they were hoping for.

There is no such thing as objective journalism. The key difference between the BBC and Facebook, however, is that the BBC still works for the public, whereas the public, knowingly or not, works for Facebook.

Facebook makes its money by managing a billion-strong captive audience and selling its data and attention to advertisers. That is too much power for any one company to have and conservative lobbyists must not be allowed to influence it further.

The public sphere ought to belong to the public – not to corporations, not to politicians and not to any interest group, even those concerned with the health benefits of standing desks. In times like these, neutrality can never be neutral and the best we can do as journalists is to trust our judgement and not give in to bullies.

This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster