Facebook’s trending bias scandal reveals how powerful the social network’s influence is


A censorship storm erupted at Facebook last week that further underlies how central the social network is to our lives. An investigation by tech news website Gizmodo revealed that conservatives stories are being suppressed in the “trending” news section, even though they are “organically trending among the site’s users”.

Facebook hired journalists, who are called “news curators”, to manage this key section of its site and “routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers,” Gizmodo reported. Other, frankly trivial but entertainment-related stories were “artificially” added to the list of “trending” topics.

The uproar on social media – and in the real media, which now ironically counts Facebook as the largest referrer of links to its stories – was more than the usual storm-in-a-teacup that epitomises the latest revelations about how Facebook manipulates its algorithms when determining what to show its users.

It brings to mind the famous quote that is always invoked during debates about censorship: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This iconic way of depicting the challenging nature of free speech is sometimes mistakenly attributed to French poet Voltaire, but is a conundrum of free speech itself. It was written by a female author in 1906, but in an era when women were seen as second-class citizens: Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote it in her biography The Friends of Voltaire, which appears under her pseudonym SG Tallentyre.

As quickly as he has sought to dampen this drama, I’m sure Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is no sympathiser with the conservative mindset that has riven the United States as racist, sexist, misogynistic Donald Trump has swept the Republican nomination for this year’s election.

The whole world has watched in horror at the hate-mongering and small-mindedness that Trump epitomises, from his unrepentant, indefensible comments about women, building walls between Mexico and the USA, preventing Muslims from entering America, and all the other bizarre drivel that spews from his mouth.

Arguably the best summation of Trump’s bigotry appeared, funnily enough, in my Facebook feed this weekend: “When a faithfully married black president [Barack Obama] who was the son of a single-mother, the first black editor of the Harvard law review and a professor of constitutional law is considered unintelligent, immoral and anti-American by the right; while a xenophobic, misogynistic, ‘serial philandering,’ trust fund kid who quotes from the National Enquirer, peddles conspiracy theories, routinely calls women ugly and fat, calls [former Republican presidential candidate who lost to Obama in 2008 John] McCain a loser for having been a prisoner of war, and who has advocated torture and the bombing of women and children has captured the hearts of the majority of Republicans. This is white supremacy folks. Plain and simple.”

For once I find myself agreeing with Facebook. Personally, I grew up with enough anti-Semitism and the churlish, petty bullying of bigots to know that what supposedly passes for free speech is really just thinly-disguised hate speech and to not want to read such so-called “conservative” drivel in my timeline. Or anywhere else in the world.

Racist, sexist claptrap doesn’t deserve to be given any airtime, least of all on the internet’s intranet – as Facebook has become. Readers of this column will know of my love-hate relationship with Facebook. Over the years my lack of trust and irritation at the manipulation of how its algorithm presents whatever it presents has grown. As much as Facebook has evolved, so has my use and experience of it. It’s become a useful place for me to see what my family around the world is up to, and to get a well-curated list of links to read or watch from the frankly smart people I know.

But, it kills me to say it, Evelyn Beatrice Hall was right. Even Donald Trump, moron that he is, must be allowed to speak.


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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