David Crisp: Oxen gored, left and right

John Thune, our neighboring U.S. senator from South Dakota, is demanding answers from Facebook in response to allegations that Facebook slants its news trending feed to leave out conservative stories.

“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,” Thune said in a statement.

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David Crisp

I have been trying to imagine Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, issuing this statement: “Any attempt by a neutral and inclusive broadcast platform to censor or manipulate political discussion is an abuse of trust and inconsistent with the values of the publicly owned airwaves.”

That will never happen because Thune was a consistent critic of the Fairness Doctrine, which used to require broadcast outlets to treat all sides of political issues fairly. Thune wrote in 2007, “I know the hair stands up on the back of my neck when I hear government officials offering to regulate the news media and talk radio to ensure fairness. I think most Americans have the same reaction.”

When the Fairness Doctrine went away, conservative talk radio blossomed. Today, it is almost impossible to find a liberal voice on talk radio, unless it is a voice that is being mocked or shouted down.

It is a media environment in which Vladimir Putin would happily thrive. In fact, listeners are more likely to hear positive comments on talk radio about Putin than about President Obama.

If these developments have unnerved Thune, evidence is scant. On the contrary, in 2009 he rejected calls to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in an op-ed that included this sentence: “People have the opportunity to seek out what radio programs they want to listen to, just as they have the freedom to read particular newspapers and magazines, watch particular news television programs, and increasingly, seek out news and opinion on the Internet.”

Under the Thune Doctrine, successor to the Fairness Doctrine, Facebook seems to be free to be as biased as it wants, so long as it isn’t biased against conservatives.

I have complained for years about the naked bias of talk radio. My conservative critics respond in predictable fashion: If liberals can’t compete in the marketplace of ideas, tough luck.

Fair enough, but this attitude has measurable results. A new survey by Public Policy Polling found that 64 percent of Republicans think that unemployment has increased during the Obama administration, and 57 percent think the stock market has gone down.

The reality is that unemployment was at 7.8 percent when Obama took office and is now at 5 percent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was a shade under 8,000 when he was sworn in; now it is more than 17,000.

Those who get their news from talk radio could not be expected to know those simple and incontestable facts. But now, huge numbers of Americans get their news on the Internet. Nearly four in 10 Americans are getting election news from Facebook, the Pew Research Center has found, and 63 percent of Facebook users get news through it.

Lots of readers at Last Best News get to us through Facebook, and Thune understandably finds that troubling. When radio and television became commercially viable, a Fairness Doctrine made sense. The broadcast spectrum was not only publicly owned but limited. If all Americans had the right to broadcast as loud as they wanted on any frequency they wanted, the result would not be that all voices would be heard but that all voices would be drowned by cacophony.

No coherent case can be made for a Fairness Doctrine on the Internet, where my freedom to swing my fists is unconstrained by the proximity of your nose. Still, Thune is right to worry that Facebook is not only dominant but domineering.

For some reason, everything I post on Facebook comes up with my wife’s name. Trying to fix the problem, I Googled “Facebook thinks I’m my wife.” On the first page of results, I found links to “Facebook thinks I’m gay” and “Facebook thinks I’m a terrorist.”

When the largest social media site in the world turns you into a non-person, life can get lonely. That’s what conservatives said they felt after Gizmodo quoted anonymous news “curators” at Facebook who said they were told to leave out stories from such conservative sources as Breitbart and Newsmax.

In addition, Gizmodo reported, “these former curators described grueling work conditions, humiliating treatment, and a secretive, imperious culture in which they were treated as disposable outsiders.”

Sounds like the news business I know.

Gizmodo’s sources were anonymous, and Facebook says it has yet to confirm bias against conservatives. Interestingly, a 2014 Pew survey found that conservatives were much more likely than liberals to say that posts on Facebook aligned with their views most or all of the time. I don’t recall Thune complaining about that.

No matter what, Facebook’s goal of creating a totally objective news source by picking stories through computer algorithms is taking a blow. Even an algorithm is only as good as the human who created it.

Somewhere inside the machine, under grueling and humiliating conditions, human beings are still making the call. And you know how biased they are.

 

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