Facebook's main news section, called Trending, has never been so buzzy thanks to a political web it allegedly weaved itself, with many critics crawling to the surface in the last five days.
The digital giant has been bashed by right-wing pundits and other media watchers since Gizmodo published a story on Monday that Trending curators routinely muffle conservative news. The digital giant denied the allegations, suggesting what appears in the section is dictated more by an algorithm than human choice. But Republican U.S. senators starting making noise, and then the Guardian revealed Facebook's internal policy that shows curators have the freedom to "select the news," so to speak, on the social platform. Other publications accused Facebook of deception, and then the social network cleared the air a bit late on Thursday, admitting that what's trending on Facebook isn't always trending in the algorithmic sense.
A couple hours later on Thursday evening, CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted on his platform that his company is investigating the matter, and added: "We have found no evidence that this report is true."
The social king is indeed now in the public court. And a service provider for The Wall Street Journal—a steady supporter of conservative causes on their editorial pages—have Zuckerberg's back.
Jim Anderson, CEO of SocialFlow, a software company that helps socialize content for major periodicals, says that relevant data points reveal that conservative news is not being sidelined on Facebook. In addition to the WSJ and Forbes, the social-publishing vendor works with The Guardian, The Economist, The New York Times, Politico, The Washington Post and The Financial Times, among others, to facilitate social promotion via Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and LinkedIn.
His company is a Facebook Marketing Partner, but he contended that his perspective isn't affected by that relationship. "Facebook doesn't pay SocialFlow," Anderson said. "We're paid by the media companies who are our customers, and we put their interests first."
Anderson goes as far as to suggest that the Facebook credibility crisis may have a lasting negative effect on Zuckerberg's tech behemoth, while sounding an alarm about how world-changing the social network's power, if abused, could be. Below is a conversation we had with Anderson and his media rep, Mark White.
Adweek: Explain your rebuttal of the Gizmodo report.
Anderson: We send an average of 500,000 posts through Facebook per month. Put another way, we publish half of the top 160 biggest media companies' content to Facebook. When the posts go through us, we're able to glean reach and engagement, how many people see a post, how many clicks etc.
On a typical day, a media company gets about a 5 percent click-through rate—and if Facebook's algorithm or human intervention were hiding a certain type of content, we would see a significant drop in engagement rate. And we haven't. Also, we've been running weekly searches of content related to all the [presidential] candidates and trending topics with them, and as we've almost always seen Donald Trump-related material way out in front, no matter who the publisher might be. We would also detect a decline in reach for conservative posts from conservative publications, which we have not.
Anything else worth considering about this discussion, on a technical level?
White: "Trending topics" isn't displayed on mobile, and Facebook says [over half] of its traffic comes [solely] through mobile. In order to see trending topics on your smartphone, you have to hit the search bar, and then it pops up. My informal poll of millennials suggest no one uses the search bar on mobile. So one might posit: Why Facebook would tinker with a relatively low trafficked part of their platform if they were up to no good?
So why would the former Facebook curator speak out if what he or she said isn't really true?
Anderson: We think there are a few outliers who did try to game the system, but it would be like trying to stop an aircraft carrier with rubber rings. To make a real difference, it would have to be a concerted and widely coordinated effort. And to really make an impact—which we would see—they would have to alter their algorithm, which no one seems to be accusing them of.
The Guardian piece quotes other former Facebook workers as saying there was no meddling. But the scary thing is, what Facebook could do it if it decided for instance that it wanted to stop, say, Donald Trump from being president. It's put Facebook and everyone else on notice for what could happen. This also means that the mistrust could help rebalance the power of the tech titans. Google, for instance, only stands to gain from this, and we think this is reminiscent of Microsoft's moment when they were the enemy No. 1 and accused of monopolistic practices.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Forbes was a SocialFlow client.