Facebook & Following the Law

August 2, 2016

Facebook is inescapable. We have it on our phones and our computers. We’re constantly sent notifications for incessant friend requests. We need to face it, Facebook has become omniscient.

Until a few years ago, this might have been merely distracting. Facebook was seen as a social diversion or as just another website employers might need to prohibit access to. Now, however, Facebook’s creeping power has extended to news. When users log in, their News Feed shows them bulletin highlights. On a surface level, this might appear perfectly reasonable and convenient for users. Look closely, however, and we discover that the company has been cherry picking media and manipulating what users see in their News Feeds.

Given Facebook’s power, this is a troublesome development. There is evidence to show that what Facebook chooses to reveal- or conceal- shapes the news itself. And the news, in turn, shapes society and politics at all levels of society.

Facebook employs entire teams of what the company terms “news curators” to shape what people see in their News Feeds. According to some news outlets, Facebook has routinely suppressed news stories from more conservative sources. Why? These stories are more in line with the company’s own ideals and the way, perhaps, that it hopes to shape society.

While this corporate behavior isn’t illegal in itself, it does raise important issues. Now more than ever, people receive their news from online sources— including Facebook. What Facebook is doing monopolizes media objectivity and the market. Though Facebook denies wielding this power, the fact is Facebook should be held as accountable as any other media outlet.

Interestingly, Facebook has denied manipulating News Feeds. The company has insisted that there is no evidence to prove that it did so. It is true that all consumers make decisions about which media to consume and which stories to follow. However, the very ubiquity of Facebook means that it has the power to shape every aspect of our world. The questions that arise in response to this are: 1. Whether Facebook can be classed as a media outlet (rather than just one of the world’s most powerful tech companies) and 2. Whether Facebook can ever be held accountable for the manipulation of its algorithms.

Yet there are now legal cases (such as Vogel v Felice) that highlight the fact that websites are a form of publishing. The role of publisher brings with it a certain responsibility. How long can Facebook continue to deny its role in shaping the news and the perception of the world? That still remains to be seen. The line between social media and news media is rapidly closing and Facebook may soon find itself called to account.

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