Update Aug. 20, '15 at 7:54 AM EST: I woke up this morning, and lo and behold, the “trending” news topic had changed. It now reads, “7th video critical of organization released by anti-abortion group.” That's more like it.
I wasn’t particularly surprised to see this afternoon that “Planned Parenthood” was listed as the #1 top-trending topic on Facebook’s trending bar.
After all, my Facebook newsfeed was packed to the seams with posts about the latest video, released this morning, featuring the gruesome testimony from a former StemExpress employee about how they harvested the brains of a baby while its heart was still beating at a Planned Parenthood clinic.
The video was prominently featured on the Drudge Report today and has racked up over 200,000 views in a few hours, while articles on conservative news sites about the videos have amassed hundreds of thousands of shares, and probably millions of views.
If anything is trending, the new Planned Parenthood video surely is.
But then I looked closer at Facebook’s “trending” Planned Parenthood topic. And then I did a double take. This is – laughable as it might seem – what the descriptor said: “U.S. State inquiries into organization show no criminal evidence, report says.”
I’m a full-time pro-life activist. I get Google alerts in my inbox every few minutes with any news at all about Planned Parenthood. I’m constantly scanning news sites and blogs for news on the Planned Parenthood scandal. And I had not heard of any “report” saying that state inquiries had found no evidence of criminal activity.
So I clicked on the “trending” topic to see what it was all about.
There I found, featured at the top, two posts by Planned Parenthood’s official Facebook page. The first post, with a puny 2.6 thousand likes, linked to a Buzzfeed article that did include mention of how some states that had investigated Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue donation program didn’t find anything amiss – because Planned Parenthood doesn’t have a fetal tissue donation program in those states. In other words, a non-story. The second post, with just over 3,000 likes, linked to a CapitalNewYork article about how Florida was going to let three clinics caught performing illegal 2nd trimester abortions to continue performing abortions.
After that there were a large number of posts by my Facebook friends about today’s video, and then a bunch of posts by random news websites, mostly about the video, although there was one by The Guardian also claiming that state investigations haven’t turned up any evidence of wrong-doing – again, because in those states tissue donation is either illegal, or Planned Parenthood just doesn’t participate in tissue donation there. That Guardian article has, as of this writing, just 4,600 likes and shares.
By contrast, LifeSite’s one story about today’s eye-opening video has over 50,000 likes and shares on Facebook, and growing by the second. Breitbart’s article about the video (linked to by the Drudge Report) has over 20,000 likes and shares. LiveActionNews’s story has 10,000. Young Conservatives has more than 18,000.
There's just no comparison. When it comes to viral social media attention, the release of today's video exposing Planned Parenthood blows any “report” purporting to show that state investigations gave Planned Parenthood a clean bill of health out of the water.
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In light this, I can’t help but ask: Is this a transparent case of Facebook misusing its authority to “create,” or, at the very least, hijack, a trending topic, to serve its own purposes?
To me the answer is clearly “yes.”
There is simply no way Facebook can honestly claim that the term “Planned Parenthood” is trending because of that unspecified “report” – presumably either the biased Buzzfeed or Guardian articles, which each boast a few thousand likes and are devoid of any particularly noteworthy news content.
It's also hard to believe that it was just an honest mistake.
By summarizing and framing their trending topic the way they have, Facebook is misleading their users, and distracting them from the real news story – the video. In fact, their “Trending” news bar, by directing people straight to posts by Planned Parenthood’s Facebook page, looks more like a paid ad for Planned Parenthood, than a straight-forward take on a hot news item.
That they’ve put their own spin on the news is hardly surprising, given the well-known socially liberal leanings of Mark Zuckerberg, and Facebook on the whole. But it seems to be a crystal clear example of the dangers of having our news filtered by the likes of Google and Facebook.
When Facebook introduced the “trending” bar, they took to themselves the power not only of exposing what their users are already talking about, but to powerfully shape the nature of the conversation. Someone at Facebook’s headquarters is responsible for coming up with a one-line description of why a particular term is “trending,” and then (it would appear), choosing which posts to give pride of place when a user clicks on that trending topic. And that one line, and those featured posts, can change everything.
This also isn’t the first time that Planned Parenthood has misused their trending bar. The first time Planned Parenthood “trended” on Facebook because of the release of one of CMP's undercover videos, I was pleased to see that the descriptor rightly emphasized the video and its content. But the second time Planned Parenthood trended, right after the release of a second video, the descriptor highlighted Planned Parenthood’s statement denying the evidence in the video, rather than the video itself.
With their “trending” bar, Facebook can even claim that their news is “democratic,” curated solely by their users. But that’s clearly only half the truth, and perhaps all the more dangerous because of that.
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