WASHINGTON, D.C., June 14, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – While conservatives may be the loudest critics of Facebook’s handling of political content, they are far from the only ones, as evidenced by the CEO of The New York Times expressing the same fears at a recent event.
On Tuesday, New York Times CEO Mark Thompson delivered a speech at an event on journalism and free speech hosted by the Open Markets Institute in Washington, D.C., during which he had harsh words for the world’s largest social network.
While crediting Facebook’s leaders with a “willingness to listen” and granting he saw “no evidence that they want to destroy journalism,” Thompson nevertheless found their decisions severely lacking. And while he also had concerns about Google and other digital platforms, he directed most of his criticism toward Facebook.
“We face an immediate threat here,” he warned, “which is that Facebook’s catalogue of missteps with data and extreme-and-hateful content will lead it into a naïve attempt to set itself up as the digital world’s editor-in-chief, prioritizing and presumably downgrading and rejecting content on a survey — and data-driven — of whether the provider of the content is ‘broadly trusted’ or not.”
Thompson was referring to plans Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last month to begin ranking news organizations by their perceived trustworthiness, which would, in turn, affect how many users their content reached. Several mainstream media figures panned the idea at the time, including New York Times managing editor Joseph Kahn, Vice News west coast editor Harry Cheadle, and The Atlantic website editor Adrienne LaFrance.
Thompson noted that Zuckerberg attempted to pitch the system as a boon to the Times because it “should expect to do well in such a ranking,” but instead the paper considers it a “sinister” concept that fundamentally misunderstands journalism.
“Democracy depends in part on unbounded competition between different journalistic perspectives and the clash of different judgements and opinions,” he explained. “History suggests that mainstream news organizations frequently get it right, but also that, not infrequently, it is the outliers who should be listened to,” because public assumptions on who to trust are not always correct.
What Facebook is doing is “profoundly dangerous,” Thompson continued, because it not only bakes fallible sentiment about trust into the editorial process, but it does it “essentially behind closed doors,” which deprives citizens of the ability to “mak[e] up their own mind which news source to believe.”
“The depth of Facebook’s lack of understanding of the nature and civic purpose of news was recently revealed by their proposal – somewhat modified after representations from the news industry – to categorize and label journalism used for marketing purposes by publishers as political advocacy, given that both contained political content,” he went on.
Facebook rolled out that requirement last month as well, causing many educational and journalistic items to be wrongly labeled as political advertising. A coalition of media outlets including the Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and more condemned the change.
Thompson also revealed that Facebook admitted to the Times its algorithm cannot distinguish advocacy from journalism, yet the company claims to be “under immense public pressure to label political advocacy.”
“When it comes to news, Facebook still doesn’t get it. In its efforts to clear up one bad mess, it seems set on joining those who want to blur the line between reality-based journalism and propaganda,” Thompson summarized. “But the underlying danger – of the agency of editors and public alike being usurped by centralised algorithmic control – is present with every digital platform where we do not fully understand how the processes of editorial selection and prioritization take place.”
To address these concerns, Thompson called for tech companies to adopt “full transparency about both algorithmic and human editorial selection by the major digital platforms,” meet with the news industry to establish “shared principles both on the presentation and choice of news content, and on its monetization,” and restore “labels and design cues” to more clearly identify news content on smartphones and news feeds.
He also called in regulators in the United States and other countries to more closely study social media platforms for “market dominance, market failure and market abuse.”
Others at the event rejected the argument that Facebook should defer to the individual. Roger McNamee, technology inventor and Zuckerberg’s former mentor, told Breitbart News that “leaving it to the audience to make those picks is how we got here,” and “you can’t solve a problem using the same tools that got you into the problem in the first place.”
Facebook is one of several officially-neutral social media giants accused of discriminating against conservative content in a variety of ways. Since Facebook began altering its News Feed algorithm last year, left-of-center sites enjoyed a nearly 14% traffic increase following algorithm changes last fall, whereas popular conservative sites saw a 27% decline.