Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Full Disclosure

I have a question.

It is not a political question.

It is a media and media-control question.

There may be moments in my explanation of this question that may strike you as political statements, but I’m trying hard to steer clear of that minefield.

I am a former journalism major, and a current observer of what makes journalism tick. I am also fascinated by all the fun new technology toys that are out there … and trying to be equally mindful of what those techno-toys can do when we’re not looking. For (or to) journalism, and anything else.

This morning, the United States Supreme Court ruled on what has become known as the “Hobby Lobby case”.

The official blog of the US Supreme Court its very own self summarizes this case’s question thus: “Whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb et seq., which provides that the government ‘shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion’ unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest, allows a for-profit corporation to deny its employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation’s owners.”

The utterly predictable 5-4 ruling’s answer to that question was, yes, a corporation can issue that denial.

There will be plenty of opinions thrown out there starting ’round about now, about whether this is a victory or a defeat or a slippery slope or whatever. I will not contribute to those opinions here now.

Instead I will take note of my Facebook addiction, and of the creation by the Facebook people of a wonderful new sidebar called “TRENDING”. Every time a critical mass of people are following a news story or a celebrity happening, I am given the opportunity to follow it myself.

Helpful, or insidious? Keeping FB people up-to-date, or encouraging them to drive up the click counts on certain websites? The answer to these questions is a resounding yes. Yes to all. I’m not naïve.

In theory, if a subject is TRENDING, that must mean that enough people are looking at posts about that subject. A completely trusting person would presume that Facebook figures this out simply by counting posts and listing the top ten subjects according to that count.

Not being entirely trusting of anything these days, I tend to wonder what algorithms calculate these TRENDING subjects, and if there are any people who have the ability and opportunity to tweak these subjects, hypothetically. And, following this line of wonderment, exactly who those people might be, hypothetically. And what agendas they might possess. Hypothetically.

So, again, Facebook addict that I am, I clicked on “US Supreme Court”. Purely as an experiment, this activity was; since the tiny summary that followed that clickable term provided adequate spoilers about the result of the Court’s “Hobby Lobby” verdict.

Promptly, my screen filled up with posts, or links to stories, about the decision. I scrolled through them a bit, and about a dozen posts into my scrolling, I paused. And went back to the top of the results page. And began to count.

After the initial New York Times article link (straight journalism; I checked), it took me eight more posts to find a link that wasn’t authored by, or affiliated with, or linked to, politicians or think-tanks or media outlets or commentators on one particular side of the debate. In this case, that side was the side that thought the decision was marvelous, and a victory for religious freedom, and that sort of thing. If I were being political, I would note that those politicians were all Republicans, and most of those commentators did a lot of work for Rupert Murdoch. But, again, I’m not being political. I promise.

Here’s the thing: Facebook, or at least its algorithms, know me fairly well at this point. If they’re paying attention to my posts, and the links I click, and probably other online behaviors I’m not even considering at the moment … then they know that I happen not to be a Republican, and that I can’t watch Fox News for more than about 15 seconds without having to go do something else. Yeah, I lean to the left a bit; what of it?

(In the journalism business, that last sentence was what is known as “on-background” detail. This is full disclosure; to let you know.)

So: if Facebook knows me that well, why haven’t they flooded my TRENDING results page with posts from my left-leaner friends, and from left-wing think-tanks, and the Rachel Maddow show, and every leftist commie pinko website from here to the ends of the Internet? I’m much more likely to click through those links to read onward, yes?

The results of my counting noted that ten of the first 12 posts were on that right-wing side of things. And thirty-six of the first forty. In the world of research, that is what is known as a strong to very-strong correlation result. Six out of ten would be considered strong enough to consider. Nine out of ten is almost laughably unlikely if the survey is truly untainted.

In the last couple of days, Facebook and its algorithmic calculations have taken it on the chin, PR-wise – and in terms of users’ trust. It has been revealed that a study was undertaken whose tactic was to subtly skew the posts that appeared on many people’s Facebook news feeds, either toward negative-emotion-driven posts or positive-, ostensibly to see whether those FB users would then respond by posting more-negatively or -positively themselves. The upshot of the researchers’ study: are emotions contagious?

[The implications of this study are worth noting; just in another separate post, is all.]

The fact that they hadn’t told any of the people didn’t engender a feeling of trust in Facebook, regardless of whether the study activity technically held to FB’s current Terms of Usage. (Legitimate research studies involve alerting people to the fact that they’re involved in a study, even if the people aren’t told much else about the study.) The fact that the study was partly provided for by the US Army Research Grant Office got a lot of people’s attention, too.

So, that unintentional but definitely curious confluence of events caused me to pause this morning, and wonder:

Is there someone in charge of deciding what subjects are TRENDING? Is there something affecting what content appears in the TRENDING results page? If the deciding element is a human, I know that he or she has opinions; because just about everyone does, at least people who care about this subject or that. And if it’s a human, it’s not a random one; it’s a human for whom that decision-making is their job. So someone else is funding that job. Don’t misunderstand: corporations aren’t people … but they are made up of people. Which gets me back to my question: is there someONE in charge of deciding what subjects are worthy of my attention, … and which ones aren’t?

I don’t care who it is; I don’t care what their agenda may be (well, that’s not really true, but within this particular journalism and communications media analysis context, it’s not my top thing). I’d just like to know about it.

Full disclosure, and all that.

As long as my data is being mined … in this case it’s fair to want someone else’s data mined, too.

I’d like to know.

Wouldn’t you?

= = = =

UPDATE (June 30, 2014, 7:55pm):

Full disclosure: sometimes I do most, but not all, of my homework.

What I described as “the official blog of the US Supreme Court” is, in fact, not the official blog. It’s an online resource that tracks a lot of details about a lot of Court cases; but it’s not the official arm of the SCOTUS.

On top of which, I managed to link poorly. The linkie linkie! is now fixed.

Editorial License regrets the errors. Oi! Errors, plural! Thirty lashes with a wet noodle, and if I’m late, start without me!

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June 30, 2014 - Posted by | current events, Facebook, Internet, journalism, media, news, social media, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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