It appears that stories in Facebook's trending news module weren't always quite as trending as they seemed. Stories that interested conservative readers on topics like CPAC and Mitt Romney were suppressed, while stories about Syria and Black Lives Matter were artificially injected into the stream. This wasn't corporate policy so much as the editorial decisions of young staffers who leaned liberal, and chose stories accordingly.
As you can imagine, this created quite a stir among conservatives, and now Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune has sent a letter to Facebook asking questions about how these decisions were made. Conservative media figures like National Review's Charles Cooke and the Washington Examiner's Phil Klein have opined that the senator should lay off.
It shouldn't so surprising. Principled conservatives generally believe that the government should restrain itself from interfering with corporate operations, and both men are deeply principled.
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But we are headed for a clash of principles on the liberal side. On the one hand, the principle that the media must be free from government interference. (This principle is, of course, most deeply cherished by liberals who happen to be employed by the media, but it is a longstanding and widespread principle elsewhere on the left.) On the other hand, the principle that corporations that have acquired a great deal of market power must not be allowed to abuse that power, even inadvertently.
Facebook has indeed acquired a great deal of power. It dominates the news diet of millennials, and is becoming more and more important for the rest of us. Nor is it easy to argue that this market power somehow doesn't matter as much as, say, Visa and MasterCard's control of the credit card interchange market.
As Orwell noted in 1984, "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." He was speaking, of course, about control of written history, of what we know to have happened -- and thereby how we allocate our political support. It is not a small matter if the company that is coming to be the nation's most significant source of news skews that news toward its own political preferences. In fact, it's just a tiny bit chilling. Government censorship is, of course, terrible. But censorship by a small group of unelected young people is not all that much more appealing.
This problem existed already on another scale. The socioeconomic, racial and political homogeneity of the media is a problem, one that I have written about before. That said, those media were operating in a competitive landscape, and no one outlet really had all that much market power. In each medium there were outlets of different sorts of political leanings, and more of them with the rise of the Internet.
Facebook, on the other hand, dominates all other social media outlets for news to an extent that no print outlet ever dominated the American landscape. The only arguable parallel is the big television networks from the 1950s to the 1980s, and at least there were three of them, rather than one. Besides, for most of that time they operated under the Fairness Doctrine -- in other words, under heavy-handed government interference to limit their power to shape the national debate.
My own feeling is that yes, well, this sort of dominance is a problem, but like many problems, it is not one that will actually be improved by lawmakers' intervention in the boardroom. But liberals who are fond of press freedom and vigorous antitrust enforcement are going to be forced into making one of two arguments, neither of them perfectly satisfying. The first is that while heavy-handed government smiting of monopoly (or quasi-monopoly) powers is necessary and justified, the media is a special exception where the government should allow powerful corporations to do whatever they want.
This is an argument that can plausibly be made, because the alternative -- politicians telling the media how they ought to cover political disputes -- is so obviously problematic. But it's not entirely comfortable, either, because this argument (and similar ones about academia and the arts) so easily smacks of special pleading: Government regulation just happens to be necessary everywhere except for the handful of industries that lean most heavily liberal. This may be true, but my word, it certainly is convenient, isn't it? Moreover, you end up simultaneously having to argue that the media is so important that the government mustn't touch it, and also that its domination by a firm with a decidedly liberal viewpoint somehow doesn't matter very much.
The greater danger is that liberals will end up falling back on an argument that is gaining more and more currency on the left: that this biasing of information is not merely an unfortunately insoluble problem, or so minor that it doesn't make much difference in our politics, but that it is actually an affirmative good. These are the people who embrace Orwell's dictum and say: "Yes, absolutely, the left should have control over what people are allowed to hear and know, because that's how we're going to build a better future." The first argument may be unsatisfying. But the second is downright Orwellian.
Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg View columnist, writes on economics, business and public policy.