When Facebook tweaked its newsfeed algorithm in 2017 to reduce the visibility of political news, the company’s engineers intentionally designed the system to disproportionately impact left-leaning outlets, effectively choking off their traffic in the process.
According to a Wall Street Journal report this week, Facebook bigwigs at the time were concerned about how these changes would affect right-leaning news outlets and wanted to avoid adding fuel to critics’ argument that the platform has an anti-conservative bias. However, in its attempt to appear unbiased, the company evidently overcorrected (which it has a history of doing). Facebook’s engineers overhauled the update to affect left-leaning sites more than previously planned, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself OK’d the redesign, sources told the Journal. The changes weren’t aimed at any particular outlet, the company later said.
“We did not make changes with the intent of impacting individual publishers,” a Facebook spokesperson told the outlet.
One of the sites the report cited as being negatively affected by this redesign is Mother Jones, a renowned investigative news outlet. In response to the Journal’s exposé, Mother Jones editorial director for growth and strategy Ben Dreyfuss wrote a scathing critic of Facebook that details years of frustrating and strained relations with the company. He said that in multiple meetings with Facebook execs in 2017 and 2018, he was assured that while publishers could expect traffic to lag after the algorithmic changes, it was “not in a way that favoured or disfavored any single publication or class of publisher.”
And yet, in 2019, several of the site’s editors wrote that traffic from Facebook had tanked dramatically over the last 18 months, translating to a loss of at least $US600,000 ($847,320).
Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein expressed frustration with Facebook in a Twitter thread Friday, explaining that the loss of traffic had “real effects” on the organisation. Mother Jones saw a roughly $US400,000 ($564,880) drop in the site’s annual revenue, and couldn’t fill positions or pursue certain projects as a result, she said.
I'm in a @MotherJones board meeting today so it's going to take a while to fully process this infuriating news, but just briefly (because YOU, as a news consumer, should be furious): https://t.co/6vehZNIcdi pic.twitter.com/KUrJgGUHUd
— Monika Bauerlein (@MonikaBauerlein) October 16, 2020
“[O]ne reason this is so enraging is that I’ve so long insisted on giving Facebook some benefit of the doubt,” Bauerlein wrote. “I was convinced we were a random casualty of their broader trajectory, a fly on their windshield. But it’s always, always worse.”
Facebook’s been caught coddling right-leaning outlets and pages several times in the company’s bid to appear unbiased, lest it set off the frothing conservative mob out for its head over baseless claims of anti-conservative censorship.
In August, a Buzzfeed exposé detailed how one Facebook employee was allegedly fired after collecting evidence of the company giving preferential treatment to right-wing pages. Internal company documents leaked to NBC also showed that Facebook relaxed its fact-checking standards for conservative news outlets and personalities, including Breitbart and former Fox News stooges Diamond and Silk, so that they wouldn’t be penalised for spreading misinformation.
And so Facebook continues to miss the bar when it comes to content moderation on its platform, stymieing coverage from legitimate outlets while simultaneously failing to keep dangerous conspiracy theories and misinformation from running amok. Who’d have thought it was possible to fail this badly, huh?