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Facebook isn’t burying conservative news, says social media exec

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg meets Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma (not pictured), at the China Development Forum in Beijing, China, March 19, 2016. REUTERS/Shu Zhang

Facebook (FB) has a bit of a media scandal on its hands this week. The social media giant is under fire after a Gizmodo story quoted an anonymous former “news curator” saying Facebook “routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential ‘trending’ news section.” The story of Facebook’s alleged machinations went viral, and so did the ironic fact that the story itself became a trending news topic on Facebook.

But one social media CEO, whose business is largely tied to Facebook, finds it extremely doubtful that Facebook is suppressing certain political content in any way—because his company would be able to tell.

Jim Anderson is CEO of SocialFlow, an enterprise tool for media platforms to schedule and optimize posts to five platforms: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and GooglePlus. With its 1.6 billion monthly users, Facebook, unsurprisingly, is the biggest driver of engagement by far. SocialFlow sends an average of 500,000 posts per month to Facebook. The company boasts that it works with more than half of the 150 biggest media outlets in the country. (Yahoo Finance, by the way, uses SocialFlow.)

When media outlets post content to their Facebook page through SocialFlow, SocialFlow can glean insights on both reach and engagement—that is, how many people see a post, and how many people actually click it.

SocialFlow says that a typical media outlet, on a good day, enjoys about a 5% click-through rate on its content. (To journalists, that may be depressing, but it is at least higher than digital ads get.) If Facebook’s algorithm were hiding a certain type of content from users, SocialFlow (and the media outlet) would see a significant drop in its engagement rate. That isn’t happening, Anderson claims.

“We’ve seen no evidence of any sort of intentional manipulation of what content is seen,” Anderson tells Yahoo Finance. “What I have seen is people’s engagement rate can go down, but that might be because they haven’t published as much lately, or frankly if their content wasn’t as good.”

He added, referring to Facebook’s supposed manipulation, “If it were happening, we would see a sudden decline in reach of conservative posts from conservative publications. We have not seen that.”

Anderson says a typical outlet can see slight changes in its reach from week to week, but nothing significant enough to suggest an intentional obfuscation by Facebook.

He offers up a few other explanations for the phenomenon, if in fact it is happening on a small scale: Facebook slightly punishes recycling of posts, which means that it might show a post to fewer people if a news site already posted the story (that isn’t the case on Twitter); Facebook’s algorithm serves you up content based on what you’ve liked in the past, so if you’ve always shared and clicked liberal news blogs, yes, you’re likely to see fewer posts from conservative sites; and it tends to overshare content from sites that are generally popular at the moment—meaning that if a conservative site’s traffic is fading, Facebook might serve up its posts to fewer people for a time, which would exacerbate the issue.

But Anderson reiterates that, although he cannot be 100% certain, he doubts Facebook is guilty of suppressing conservative news stories.

To be sure, you might take Anderson and SocialFlow as a biased party, because it depends on Facebook for its business model. But you could also look at it the other way: SocialFlow merely helps media outlets share their content to whatever social media platform is popular; if Facebook were to lose steam, and a new player came along, SocialFlow would connect to that one. So in a sense, SocialFlow shouldn’t necessarily have any particularly loyalty to one site.

Facebook, for its part, responded to the accusations on Monday night through a lengthy post by Tom Stocky, who runs the Trending Topics team.

“We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true,” he wrote. “There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another.”

Of course, a statement won’t put the issue to rest: Republican senator John Thune, from South Dakota, is now asking Mark Zuckberg for answers.

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Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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