Facebook News Suppresses Headlines – A Reminder to Think for Ourselves

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – 17 May, 2016 – A recent revelation that Facebook Inc. suppressed headlines, particularly ones of a conservative bend, in its sidebar news section sparked outrage this past week. People cried foul, news anchors threw up the hands, and Mark Zuckerberg promised he would do his best to make things right by meeting with conservative leaders or those who felt his organization did something wrong.

The promise that they would do their best to maintain some semblance of impartiality when it comes to news is all well and good, but every news source has to pay its bills. If things don’t spark interest, or bore the readers they don’t get read. Whenever you have human curation of any type, there’s no way to separate the interests of the group, the individuals and the company from that news.

The factors that contribute to news bias are hard to avoid

The news is a product in the end, and is formed by what Noam Chomsky calls the “Propaganda Model,” in his book “Manufacturing Consent.”

Ownership and Advertising – The interests of both the owners and the advertisers have to be taken into account when adding new news stories.  If the owners are part of a conglomerate that also owns an oil company, for instance, news stories that reflect poorly on that interest would be suppressed. If a car company’s commercials pay the bills at a particular news station, there not going to be running to feature a story that exposes that company cheated on its emissions tests generally.

Sourcing – It’s hard to be everywhere at all times, so news mediums need to go where they will get the most return, often teaming with government organizations and other organizations to get their information ­– which can lead to a skewing of the tone in the favor of those sources.

Fear and Avoidance of Flak – The book was written in the Cold War so anti-communist sentiment was at a fever pitch,  so news platforms exploited the public’s tendencies to get hyped up on fear and use it to their benefit – getting them to listen to and watch more news on their platform. We all have received flak and tend to skew what we present to the world to avoid it when possible – news sources will do this as well, and it affects the overall accuracy of their information, whether it be a television broadcast or a Facebook News section.

According to Chomsky, other factors like keeping it simple for the sake of the lowest common denominator of intelligence, a ‘sound byte’ mentality, keeping in mind the entertainment factor, and the tendency to emphasize a good and evil storyline all couple together with the items mentioned above to sell news as product to consumers.

This should remind us that we shouldn’t just be passive receivers of ‘News Product’ without thinking critically, as much as we can it’s important to listen, watch and read different sources and weigh contrasting opinions when we can. If we do this and think critically, we’re much more likely to be able to come to conclusions that aren’t just handed to us by news sources.

News creators and curators responsibility

Those of us who own businesses, blogs and platforms need to recognize our biases and share them with those around us. For instance, as a web designer focused on Conversion Rate Optimization and gaining more website traffic I often write material that will elicit the most clicks and get more readers. Even though most of my articles aren’t about politics, I have to recognize that this tendency exists in the news sources I follow as well.

Even though a news source uses a hyped up claim in a headline, they may justify it to themselves by adding more context and information from two opposing sides within the article itself. The problem is that on Facebook, Twitter, and other quick-fix instant gratification mediums many of us are just scanning headlines – and some are unfortunate enough to accept headlines as a type of truth, intentionally or accidentally.

In the aggregate, these headline scanners who take too much at face value can skew the public opinion, and possibly more, unfortunately, the electorate. For that reason, there’s a bit more responsibility on those who make and present the news to think a bit more critically about how they’re getting their clicks. In the end, though, this new development invites us all to look a little bit more closely at how we need to think for ourselves.

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