Facebook’s algorithm only as unbiased as its creators

Washington Times: It turns out the algorithms that govern the internet can be as biased as the people who create and update them.

That may be the most surprising takeaway from the political bias scandal that has enveloped Facebook after former employees told the tech blog Gizmodo that they would sometimes suppress conservative-friendly items and promote liberal reports on the newsfeed’s “trending topics” box.

Even if no humans were involved, however, the algorithm would not have been completely neutral because it was written by humans, digital media analysts say.

“I think there’s probably no such thing as a neutral algorithm, just like there’s probably never really such a thing as a truly neutral journalist,” said Philip Napoli, journalism and media studies professor at Rutgers University.

“They get created and they evolve over time and they get tweaked. And there’s no one author,” Mr. Napoli said. “These algorithms are the result of years and years of modification and refinement and different people coming in and contributing. It’s more dispersed.”

The question of eliminating bias in the algorithm — or at least mitigating it — is likely to be raised when leading conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck and Dana Perino meet Wednesday with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Mr. Zuckerberg has insisted that “rigorous guidelines” govern what appears on “trending topics,” the box in the top right corner of the Facebook feed that users have been led to believe reflects the most popular subjects on the site.

With 1.6 billion users, Facebook is the most pervasive media outlet in the world. If Facebook represents its “trending topics” feed as politically neutral but conservatives are excluded — either automatically by the algorithm or proactively by curators — implications for the free exchange of ideas are enormous, critics say.

Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, fired off a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg last week seeking answers to questions raised by the report of “political manipulation.”

“Any attempt by a neutral and inclusive social media platform to censor or manipulate political discussion is an abuse of trust and inconsistent with the values of an open Internet,” Mr. Thune said in a May 10 statement.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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