Conservative news outlets lashed out at Facebook after reports surfaced that staff were rountinely suppressing conservative viewpoints. While there was plenty of vitriol to go around, there is scant evidence that Facebook was suppressing conservative points of view. Breitbart News has remained as one of the top 25 Facebook publishers for the last six months and, while the whistleblower kept records of stories being suppressed, those notes have not been released and none of the former employees have come forward to publicly defend their claims.
A Facebook VP investigating the allegations found the claim groundless and the dustup ignores the bigger question of whether it makes any difference. Facebook is a private company and, if they want to shamelessly manipulate and edit their newstream, they have a perfect right to do so. You won’t find outlets like Newsmax, Breitbart or Townhall airing alternate viewpoints so, at least on the surface, it’s a little hypocritical to throw rocks at Facebook.
The Fairness Doctrine
There was a time when companies holding a broadcast license were required to grant opposing viewpoints on controversial topics equal air time. That requirement was called the Fairness Doctrine and, ironically, it was conservatives who rallied against the rules, finally getting the requirement removed in 1987. Even if the Fairness Doctrine still existed it’s not clear if it would apply to the internet. There is still some question on whether the internet qualifies as a public commons and would be subject to equal time requirements even if they still existed.
Reddit, a site that bills itself as the front page of the internet, has frequently run into accusations of censorship. Unlike Facebook, Reddit depends on armies of unpaid volunteers, called mods, to police discussion forums. At various times and in a multitude of discussion forums, called subreddits, the mods have been accused of censoring topics, particular news outlets and even popular individuals. There have been rumors of mod accounts being sold to PR firms and sometimes political operatives. Anyone who has spent any length of time on Reddit has experienced that behavior first hand. Ironically one of the subreddits quick with the ban hammer is /r/conservatives, which quickly squashes any dissenting viewpoint.
All News Is Censored
We live in age where all the major news outlets, with the possible exception of NPR, are privately owned. The owners of those news outlets, whether they be newspapers, television, radio or websites, all have opinions and all exercise editorial control of the content they air. As it becomes more expensive to conduct hard news investigations we’ve seen news outlets consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. Commercial news outlets have advertisers and few are willing to air stories uncomplimentary to the organizations that pay them.
We’ve come to the age when, literally, anyone with a computer can launch a news site. We have fewer hard news options because we’re not willing to pay for it. So, certainly Facebook and other companies are going to manipulate the news and nothing can or should stop them. What we have today isn’t pretty and it’s not perfect but, as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for.