I hate Facebook.
I've never been comfortable with the idea of the social media behemoth all up in my business. I realize this puts me in a very tiny category. Facebook is ever more central to people’s everyday lives. Average time spent by most users — 50 minutes a day. Remember that’s average, I know a lot of people who seem to live on Facebook.
Before you dismiss me, this is not an anti-technology rant or even an anti-social media rant. I have a phone chock full of apps and I think Twitter can be both fun and informative — even if I lurk more than tweet. I just don’t like being at the possible mercy of whatever human is turning the dials behind the content data curtain.
My friends jumped on the Facebook craze, but I held back because I was uncomfortable with how the company seemed to constantly change its privacy policies. Facebook has "adjusted" its policies many times and it seems to me, not to the benefit of the user. So I wasn’t surprised recently when Facebook came under fire for deliberately manipulating the stories on its list of trending topics. It allegedly eliminated stories about conservative issues or ideas, pr artificially inserted other kinds of stories that weren’t trending.
The website Gizmodo made the claim in a special report heavily reliant on anonymous former Facebook employees. Two million people have read the original story, and the US Senate Commerce Committee — led by Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota — wants an investigation.
Facebook is leading its own investigation and Facebook Founder CEO Mark Zuckerberg denies the anti-conservative bias, saying “We have found no evidence this report is true.”
But I’m suspicious. I’ve always worried about Facebook’s ability to manipulate subscriber’s data with nobody being the wiser. What else has this super secretive company been doing?
Probably few would be alarmed by Facebook’s latest controversy if the social media giant was still mostly used for social interaction. But Facebook has evolved into a tool used by many to get news and current information. Facebook's users now total 1.6 billion and a Pew study found 63 percent of them regularly use it to get their news. In my own circle, many of my friends habitually refer me to news articles they’ve read on Facebook.
Senator Thune has asked Facebook to produce all the recent stories in its Trending Topics list. Facebook has released the 28-page guidebook revealing how the Trending Topics selection process works, and disclosing that humans have more editorial input than algorithms. And Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has invited “leading conservatives and people from across the political spectrum” to meet and talk about the bias accusations.
I hope they take him up on it. Public debate has devolved into little more than nasty exchanges because people on opposite sides of an issue won’t listen to each other. How sad if the one of the world’s most powerful tools for 21st century communication becomes a new instrument of division.
A version of this commentary first appeared on WGBHNews.org.