Facebook has a content problem and it may have a thing or two to do with its algorithm and its identity as a media company. The social media platform came under criticism twice on Friday—once for a 9/11 conspiracy theory making it to the Trending News list and once for censoring an iconic photograph from the Vietnam War.
On Friday morning, an article in British tabloid The Daily Star made its way to the Trends list on Facebook just days ahead of the 15th anniversary of tragic attack. The piece—titled "September 11: The footage that 'proves bombs were planted in Twin Towers'”—alleges that the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York was the result of “controlled demolition.”
— Jessica Contrera (@mjcontrera) September 9, 2016
Since firing the Trending team—after allegations that Facebook’s trending news module was suppressing conservative news—and replacing humans with an algorithm, Facebook has fumbled a bit with the type of content that gets promoted to trending news. Previously, the algorithm featured an inaccurate story about Fox News host Megyn Kelly and a less than savory story about McDonald’s McChicken.
“We looked into these claims and found no evidence of systematic bias,” said Facebook in a statement at the time of the change to the algorithm-based trending module. “Still, making these changes to the product allows our team to make fewer individual decisions about topics. Facebook is a platform for all ideas, and we’re committed to maintaining Trending as a way for people to access a breadth of ideas and commentary about a variety of topics.”
And then there’s the issue with the 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning image of a naked nine-year-old Kim Phúc running away napalm bombs in Vietnam. The photograph, taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, was one of several shared by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland in a post about photography and war. The image was deleted and Egeland’s account was suspended—a story that got picked up by Norway’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten.
"If you will not distinguish between child pornography and documentary photographs from a war, this will simply promote stupidity and fail to bring human beings closer to each other," wrote Aftenposten CEO Espen Egil Hansen in an open letter.
— Aftenposten (@Aftenposten) September 9, 2016
Both issues have since been addressed by Facebook and resolved—the company removed the topic from the Trends module and restored the censored image. But it raises the question of why Facebook is having so many editorial problems when it doesn’t identify as a media company.
"No, we are a tech company, not a media company," said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, during a Q&A session at Rome's Luiss university, when asked if Facebook would become a news editor. “When you think about a media company, you know, people are producing content, people are editing content, and that's not us. We're a technology company. We build tools. We do not produce the content. We exist to give you the tools to curate and have the experience that you want, to connect with the people and businesses and institutions in the world that you want.”
Zuckerberg may not consider himself to be an editor or his company to be a media company, but Hansen begs to differ. “Facebook not only has become a media company, but Mark Zuckerberg is the most powerful editor in chief in the world,” wrote Hansen in his open letter.