Media Power and Facebook “Trending”: One Site to Rule Them All

Media Power and Facebook “Trending”: One Site to Rule Them All

Two events in the news media speak volumes about the rapidly changing media environment.

One was the purchase of the Tampa Tribune by the Tampa Bay Times. With the acquisition went approximately half of the Tribune’s workforce (the other half lost their jobs), and some Internet real estate (tbo.com) that now dutifully redirects to the once-competing news site, tampabay.com.

My household always has subscribed to one or both papers at some level. When the buyout occurred, we were receiving the Tampa Bay Times daily and the Tampa Tribune on Sundays.

As a result, the first Sunday after the demise of the Tribune, my driveway was decorated with two copies of the Tampa Bay Times.

I should have taken a picture and posted it to Facebook. It was symbolic of the reduction in serious voices in local news nationwide. Instead of two competing voices arriving on my driveway each Sunday, now there’s only one . . . times two.

The other news story actually is about Facebook.

Facebook is the number one news referral source in the U.S., according to a recent Pew Center study. Millions of Americans report that Facebook is a go-to source for news. And, based on their “click” behavior, when Facebook says “look at this!”, “read this!”, we often do.

One way Facebook plays this role is through its Trending feature. Facebook explains,

Trending shows you a list of topics and hashtags that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook. This list is personalized based on a number of factors, including Pages you’ve liked, your location and what’s trending across Facebook. 

In theory, what’s in Trending on your Facebook page tells us something about both aggregate user behavior and your personal preferences. The algorithm picks up the frequency with which particular topics are appearing, particular stories being clicked. It also tracks our individual behavior on Facebook, trimming out things we seem to dislike, giving us more of what we appear to want.

So here’s what’s “trending” on my page as I write this:

  • “Busch Gardens Tampa Bay” – a story about 64 riders being rescued from the Sheikra rollercoaster after it broke down. I live in Tampa and have many “memories” on Facebook of Busch Gardens.
  • “Alaska Moose” – a video of a moose playing with wind chimes. I have friends in Alaska, and I tend to watch wildlife videos.
  • “Calvin Klein” – a story about a controversial “upskirt” picture in one of their recent ads. Okay, this one, if it reflects my behavior, reflects my following of stories about ethics in advertising, not upskirt photography. Just sayin’. . .

The controversy that has arisen around Trending concerns allegations that what appears there is not a simple product of user behavior. Instead, say critics, liberal bias at the individual and even the corporate level sometimes distorts what’s highlighted there.

Facebook acknowledges that human curators play a role, but denies ideological bias. FB says the curators check the sources of trending items to be sure they are credible before allowing them into the Trending feed.

Facebook probably could manipulate the Trending stream as alleged if it wished to, without fear of legal sanction. Every news operation makes choices about which stories will receive greater attention and “front page” status. The Tribune and the Times often gave different weight to different stories, reflecting their different ideological perspectives. The fact that Facebook doesn’t call itself a news operation doesn’t detract from its freedom to do what it likes on its own pages, especially with regard to deciding what to promote or publicize and what to bury or disregard.

But where newspapers measure their audiences in tens or hundreds of thousands, Facebook measures it’s audience in tens of millions (in the U.S. alone; over 1 billion worldwide). That’s a bigger “voice” than any traditional news source has ever had.

The irony of 21st century media is evident here. Old practices are dying out, unable to compete with our expectations for on-demand, mobile, easily consumed content. New practices are emerging almost daily, thousands upon thousands of new sites, blogs, and apps catering to those expectations. There are more people “speaking” in ways that more people can “hear” than ever before in human history.

And yet . . . by an incredibly large margin, one site (Facebook) rules them all.

If that one was noble of intent and neutral in content, perhaps we’d be okay with it. But Facebook is no Frodo. Facebook has remarkable media power and no intention of giving it up. This isn’t about political bias; it’s about market share and profit.

So . . . can a social media site become a “monopoly”, a “trust” that must be busted? That’s a pretty hard case to make, given the proliferation of other social media sites.

Perhaps what we should take away is the need to withhold our trust a bit more, to be skeptical of anything that presents itself as being based simply on our preferences.

Access to our eyes and wallets is a powerful motivator. Those who have it will use it to their own ends.

That much you can trust.

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