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May 18, 2016

Trending Topic: Let the Market Work

 

Facebook has come under the accusation that its “trending topics” feature is not simply a neutral algorithm as most assumed, but is rather curated by employees who may have manipulated outcomes and biased results against conservative topics and sources. The accusation comes from anonymous former employees, which is always a dicey proposition. And while the story is still in progress, subsequent statements from Facebook have confirmed that trending topics is in fact curated by employees and thus subject to bias.

Now, curation by human beings is a feature, not a bug. The problem in this instance is the gap between users’ assumption that trending topics is an automated and accurate reflection of the activity of real Facebook users and the realization that it may not be. That is jarring—especially to conservatives because we also harbor the not unreasonable assumption that those in control in Silicon Valley do not necessarily share our values, as has also been demonstrated in the major media and in higher education.

New media was supposed to give conservatives an end-run around the old biased mainstream media gatekeepers. Is new media rigged as well? What’s going on with Twitter’s trending topics, inquiring minds want to know?

For free-market types, we believe that markets deliver the best (though not perfect) results because the market rewards those who serve their customers and punishes those who don’t. In this case, conservatives should take comfort from the fact that they are a substantial part of Facebook’s user base, and thus the company would be crazy to dis conservatives.

Using the Facebook Ads Power Editor tool, I did a little survey of the size of some Facebook audiences.  Roughly the same number of Facebook users identify as Republicans and Democrats (around 13 million each), but the 35 million Facebookers who chose “conservatism” as a keyword dramatically outnumber the 20 million who chose “liberalism” and the 18 million who chose “progressivism.”

Of course, many users may have chosen both liberalism and progressivism, so there is probably a lot of overlap in this cursory look at the data.  Still, 35 million is a lot of Facebook users.

No wonder Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is meeting today with a group of prominent conservatives.

Make no mistake: Zuckerberg’s nimble move to reach out to conservatives is in itself an example of the market at work. Whistleblowers, critical news stories, and the way a company addresses (or fails to address) its customers’ concerns are all examples of the marketplace at work. And if we believe markets are the best way to solve problems, we should let the market do its work instead of making the tired old mistake of turning to government and giving bureaucrats an excuse to engage in content regulation.

For years conservatives have opposed letting federal regulatory agencies like the FCC get into the business of content regulation. We’ve opposed overt regulation through the Fairness Doctrine, and we’ve opposed backdoor content regulation through the FCC’s assertion of authority under net neutrality. Now is certainly not the time to abandon those principles.

If some Facebook staff have been biasing trending topics against conservatives, and if customer feedback leads Facebook to design a more robust and transparent system that ensures fairness to all its users, that is a market success, not a market failure. Let’s let it play out.


 

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