The Briefing 05-11-16

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Former staffers accuse Facebook of liberal bias, "gatekeeping" against conservative news

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US Attorney General claims male-female distinction is "distinction without a difference"

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Transcript

The Briefing

May 11, 2016

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Wednesday, May 11, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Former staffers accuse Facebook of liberal bias, "gatekeeping" against conservative news

The big headline story of importance this morning has to do with Facebook. As the New York Times reported yesterday,

“Facebook scrambled on Monday to respond to a new and startling line of attack: accusations of political bias.”

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As John Herrman and Mike Isaac of the Times reported,

“The outcry was set off by a report on Monday morning by the website Gizmodo, which said that Facebook’s team in charge of the site’s “trending” list had intentionally suppressed articles from conservative news sources. The social network uses the trending feature to indicate the most popular news articles of the day to users.”

Now if you go back over the last several years and months, Facebook has faced an incredible amount of controversy, because there have been accusations of bias, not only in the trending feature having to do with news, but other aspects of the website as well. One of the recent changes to Facebook had to do with the fact that news articles have begun appearing in the feeds of individual users, and this is accompanying a move towards the commercialization of the Internet in general and of Facebook specifically in terms of the news articles and other features that are now coming unbidden to users of Facebook.

But the big news this week came as Gizmodo published a blockbuster report on Facebook, citing anonymous but clearly authoritative sources within Facebook. As the New York Times and other major media have indicated, there are really two huge stories here and both of them should be of interest to Christians. The first has to do with outright claims—now documented claims—of bias in terms of Facebook, especially in its trending service. But there is also something else, and that is what the story points to in terms of the gatekeeper capacity that is now fulfilled largely in the social media by organizations like Facebook. And make no mistake, this is not a small issue. Facebook controls what its users see and in terms of the trending feature and other features of Facebook, the reality is this gatekeeper function is absolutely massive. And about this, Christians should think very, very carefully.

Let’s look at the story in the New York Times once again. It includes a statement from a man identified as Glenn Greenwald, a journalist the Times says is hardly a conservative ally. According to the article, Greenwald said,

“‘Aside from fueling right-wing persecution, this is a key reminder of dangers of Silicon Valley controlling content.’ And Alexander Marlow, the editor in chief of Breitbart News, a conservative-leaning publication, said the report confirmed ‘what conservatives have long suspected.’”

Indeed, conservatives have suspected this for quite a long time. Any review of the trending service, furthermore, any review of other services in terms of the major social media, would indicate that there is a predominant lean in a liberal direction. But about this Christians should not be absolutely shocked, because after all this gatekeeper function is a part of the technology that we have bought into when signing up for Facebook, Twitter, and any number of other Internet services as well. And that gatekeeper function, even though it may employ algorithms that are blamed for any kind of imbalance, are actually put together by human beings. And as the Washington Post noted, when we’re talking about the algorithm, it too was established by human beings, who are, after all, affected by bias. To its credit, the New York Times gives serious attention to these charges, noting that with more than 222 million monthly active users in the United States and Canada, Facebook has become a place that people flock to to find out, as the Times says, what’s going on.

The paper cites research from the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the Knight Foundation that found that,

“63 percent of Facebook’s users considered the service a news source.”

At this point, the New York Times points out that in April of this year Facebook, in their words,

“Facebook embraced this role openly, releasing a video to implore people to search Facebook to discover ‘the other side of the story.’”

As the Times then explains,

“Politicians have increasingly shared their messages through the social network.”

Meanwhile, while we’re talking about Facebook as a gatekeeper, as a news source, and as a social media platform, we need to recognize that it intends to be active in the political arena as well. It is already announced that Facebook will be a sponsor for both the Democratic and the Republican National Conventions this summer. In terms of the substantial charges made by Gizmodo, the New York Times reports that the allegations also put the spotlight on how Facebook chooses which news articles to show users under the trending function. On desktop computers, trending displays on the right side of the screens; on cell phones it appears when users search. The paper goes on to say that,

“Facebook has long described its trending feature as largely automatic. ‘The topics you see are based on a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, pages you’ve liked and your location,’ according to a description on Facebook’s site.”

But now Gizmodo reports that personnel at Facebook have actively suppressed conservative news stories and articles with a more conservative point of view. One of the most insightful comments came from Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of computer science and law at Harvard University, who said,

“The agenda-setting power of a handful of companies like Facebook and Twitter should not be underestimated.”

He went on to say,

“These services will be at their best when they are explicitly committed to serving the interests of their users rather than simply offering a service whose boundaries for influence are unknown and ever-changing.”

As Andrew Blake of the Washington Post reports, the personnel at Facebook with this responsibility are identified as news curators. The tech blog Gizmodo said that links appearing in Facebook’s trending news section don’t necessarily reflect the web’s most popular articles. In other words, it’s not simply a matter of math and an algorithm about the trending stories; there is an editorial bias that is being employed. One former curator said,

“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending. I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”

Now remember the numbers here. Facebook boasts that it has over 1 billion account holders; that’s internationally.

“It’s made that boast,” says the Times, “since 2012.”

And about 63% of its US-based users said, according again to Pew Research, that they get news through the social network. That’s up from just 47% in 2013; that number of 63% is dated in 2015. That’s a massive jump in just two years, and it demonstrates the transformation of Facebook into a major platform for the news.

Yesterday afternoon, Facebook pushed back after saying it would investigate the charges. As the Wall Street Journal reported,

“Facebook is claiming to be an open marketplace of ideas. It also, according to the website, strives to give users what it thinks they want.”

But as the Wall Street Journal says,

“The tension between those goals has now burst into view amid new questions about the social networks role in the spread of news.”

The Wall Street Journal went on to cite Tom Stocky, a Facebook executive who made a statement saying that the website has what he described as “rigorous guidelines” in place in order to ensure content neutrality and that Facebook does not permit “the suppression of political perspectives.”

At the same time, as the Wall Street Journal noted, Mr. Stocky acknowledged that human editors curate the trending stories feature. But according to the Journal, he said his technology prohibits those curators from discriminating against certain sources. But as the Journal says,

“He didn’t describe the technology.”

Once again, the Journal pointed towards the even bigger story about the gatekeeping powers of the site Facebook and other similar sites, but Facebook in particular. As the Wall Street Journal reported,

“The back-and-forth underscored Facebook’s uncommon power to shape the flow of news to more than 1/5 of the world’s population. A scale,” said the Journal, “that few other companies can match. At this point, we simply have to wonder what other company that might be. It certainly is not a major newspaper. It’s probably not a major television network, in all likelihood; there is nothing that can surpass Facebook in terms of its current status as a news provider.”

Jason Turcotte, assistant professor of communication at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, said,

“At the core, this controversy is really about Facebook’s gatekeeping powers.”

But on this score, easily the most interesting article appeared at the Washington Post. Philip Bump, writing for the Post column “The Fix,” raises the question as to whether or not the Gizmodo revelation is really a big story. And, as he says, it certainly is.

He cites one of Gizmodo’s insiders at Facebook who said,

“I believe it [that is the policy of Facebook] had a chilling effect on conservative news.”

The Gizmodo report had a couple of very interesting specifics in it; for example, it indicated that stories that were likely to be more critical of the President’s policy in Syria or having to do with Iran—they apparently were suppressed, at least that is the active claim. On the other hand, more liberal stories were sometimes deliberately inserted into the trending column in order to gain attention. But then the Post, after citing the statement from Facebook, wrote this,

“Any news organization, including The Washington Post, is subject to bias introduced by the people that work for it. Hand-tailoring what the trending-news algorithm spits out introduces bias (not that the algorithm itself is without any bias, given that it, too, is cobbled together by humans).”

But then Bump writes,

“But that bias affects an audience of a size that The Post [he means the Washington Post] could only dream about.”

Just to make certain we don’t miss the point, Bump concluded his essay with these very important words:

“That’s the issue at the heart of the question over what Facebook is suppressing or promoting. This is,” says Bump, “a media company at a scale that is without precedent in the world. Nearly ¾ of American adults who use the Internet use Facebook and those adults didn’t see stories about political topics in their trending news feeds because a human who works at Facebook decided not to show it.”

Informed observers of the news will note a certain irony in the New York Times and the Washington Post writing this article on Facebook. It’s a legitimate news story. It’s an important news story; they had no choice but to cover it. But interestingly, covering Facebook in terms of this controversy required both the Times and the Washington Post even more explicitly to acknowledge that, if you are indeed writing the news, if you’re editing the news, if you’re broadcasting the news, or if you are posting the news on an internet site, there is bias involved. That’s a stunning admission being made by the Washington Post. To the credit of the Post and the Times, this isn’t the first time they have admitted that kind of bias. But in this crucial news story, it comes at a very important juncture.

Once again, as Philip Bump wrote,

“Any news organization, including The Washington Post, is subject to bias introduced by the people that work for it.”

That’s a very important thing to know, and Christians as consumers and observers of the media need to understand that there is no such thing as media neutrality. That’s not to say there isn’t the opportunity and the responsibility of media fairness. In a fallen world, true objectivity is impossible, that is one of the effects of the fall. But what we’ve seen in this culture is that the media have been leaning so far left over the course of the last 30 to 40 years that it is very difficult for any conservative arguments, or for conservative news stories for that matter, even to get through.

But even as Facebook is now facing this controversy, the big story really is the power of Facebook and other social media in terms of our everyday lives. The numbers are indeed absolutely staggering; we’re talking about over 1 billion users; we’re talking about 75% of all adults in the United States who use the Internet being connected to Facebook; and we’re talking about over half of Americans saying that they now look to Facebook as a news source. And furthermore, we’re also looking at the fact that research indicates that Americans are actually more, and not less, dependent upon social media than they now admit.

The declining readership of print publications in terms of the news, including both newsmagazines and daily newspapers, and the declining influence of the major television networks, means that Americans, insofar as they are consumers of the news, tend to get their news from social media. And what we now know and have made very explicit in this article at Gizmodo is that the largest purveyor of the news in the history of humanity, certainly reaching more adults in terms of the world and specifically in North America than any other news service ever, that there are very credible accusations of an active liberal bias at Facebook, indicating a larger pattern in the media environment.

One final thought on this story for Christians. One of the things we need to note is how we are concerned when we think about an issue like this to understand the effect of this kind of media on our own thinking, our own intuitions, our own perception of the world. But recognize that it is far more important for us to concede that it is most influential, that social media and other forms of influence are most effective when we are not thinking about their influence upon us. It’s the gatekeeping function and the cultural conditioning, the bias that comes when we are not even aware of it. That is surely the far larger danger.

US Attorney General claims male-female distinction is "distinction without a difference"

Next, shifting the scene to North Carolina, we’ve had a lot of discussion on The Briefing about the controversy over that state’s so-called bathroom bill, and yesterday on The Briefing we talked about the dueling lawsuits coming from the U.S. Justice Department and now from the Governor of North Carolina. But what makes it necessary discussion for us today is what was said by the Attorney General of the United States in her statement made on Monday. Mainstream media reports did not include the entirety of her statement—that’s not unusual. But when we look at her full statement, we see that the Attorney General of the United States is making argument that on the one hand is very dangerous, but on the second is very telling about where we stand today. In terms of the Attorney General’s statement, she announced that even as the lawsuits were now pending in terms of the legal action,

“I want to note that we retain the option of curtailing federal funding to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina as this case proceeds.”

That’s the Attorney General of the United States holding effectively a financial hammer in her hand and showing it. But then her next words are incredibly telling. The Attorney General said,

“This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms. This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them – indeed, to protect all of us. And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country – haltingly but inexorably – in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.”

Immediately after making that statement, Attorney General Loretta Lynch then made a direct reference to Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. She made a direct linkage between the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in America and North Carolina’s law that says that persons should use the public restroom that is associated with their gender at birth. Explicitly and without subtlety, the Attorney General used the language of fairness, tying this to what she described as the founding ideals of this country and suggesting that, inevitably, history is turning in this direction. Now remember, she’s talking about LGBT issues in particular, the rights of those who claim a transgender identity to use whatever bathroom they may choose and she’s tying it to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, knowing full well that there was no legislative intent that included LGBT issues—but furthermore, putting the full energy of the Obama Administration behind this moral revolution as now a revolution in the law, not just in the interpretation of Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but about the entirety of our constitutional tradition.

In the next paragraph, the Attorney General of the United States declares the Obama Administration’s official position, which is now declared to be the official position of the federal government of the United States of America on transgender identity. The Attorney General said,

“This is why none of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something they are not, or invents a problem that doesn’t exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment.”

Here you have the Attorney General of the United States speaking as an expert on transgender issues and solidly putting the federal government and the Department of Justice behind the claim that the state of North Carolina is now “insisting that a person pretend to be something they are not.”

By the way, before going any further, we simply have to note what lexicographers and the editors of dictionaries have pointed out and that is this: the sentence just stated by the Attorney General of the United States would not have been recognized in terms of grammar or syntax until very recent times. Because she’s talking about a singular individual—she says a person and then uses the first person plural pronoun they. Ordinarily throughout human history, that would’ve required a he or she. But in the most stunning part of the Attorney General’s statement, not something covered by most mainstream media, she said this, and I quote,

“It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference. We have moved beyond those dark days, but not without pain and suffering and an ongoing fight to keep moving forward.”

She then said,

“Let us write a different story this time. Let us not act out of fear and misunderstanding, but out of the values of inclusion, diversity and regard for all that make our country great.”

Let’s look very carefully at her language. It is simply astounding. She speaks with great pathos and meaning about the laws that enforced legal racial segregation in America, those Jim Crow laws that she referenced. She rightly indicts them as making a “distinction without a difference.” That is her terminology here—a “distinction without a difference.” That is to say that no one who understands that every single human being is made in the image of God should ever abide, much less support, laws enforcing legal segregation nor legal segregation on the basis of race whatsoever, nor segregation even if it doesn’t come with legal sanction. That is indeed a “distinction without a difference.” On this ground, the Attorney General of the United States is speaking on the highest of moral high ground. As a matter of fact, it is such moral high ground that it can only be sustained by a biblical worldview that explains that every single human being, regardless of race, ethnicity, skin color, or any other condition, is equally made in the image of God, and thus is of equal dignity.

But the astounding part of this argument is not when the Attorney General is talking about the Jim Crow laws, but when she extends that as if it is a natural parallel to the North Carolina law, having to do with gender identity and the use of public restrooms. There her terminology of a distinction without a difference is, as I’ve just said, absolutely astounding. Here we have to note that the Attorney General’s language is just absolutely explosive. She is claiming by extension that gender distinction is also now recognized as a “distinction without a difference.”

Let’s think about the signs she talked about. She’s absolutely right to point to the inherent immorality of having signs of a racial nature over bathrooms or water fountains. But is she really making the argument that the sign, man and woman, or male and female, having to do with bathrooms, that that itself is a distinction without a difference? I don’t doubt for a moment that the Attorney General of the United States meant exactly what she said, but that is precisely why we must pay very close attention to her actual words. Toward the end of her article she addressed the transgender community directly saying,

“Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead.”

Note once again how the Attorney General has entirely sided with an ideology that didn’t even exist in terms of American cultural conversation just a generation ago, and that wasn’t imaginable just a few years ago, and that wasn’t even articulated by her boss, the current President of the United States, even when he was running for president or for reelection. With unprecedented speed, arguments that would’ve been controversial if made by a liberal professor in a university classroom just a matter of a few years ago have now been stated clearly by the Attorney General of the United States of America. We’ve now been served notice that the U.S. federal government is operating on the premise that the distinction between men and women is a distinction without a difference. Notice has been served.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing