Facebook has endured some of the most sustained criticism of its lifetime this past week after Gizmodo, the Guardian, and other publications leaked information on the internal process behind Trending Topics, the social network’s column of top news stories that were supposedly representative of the most popular stories of the day.
It was previously assumed that algorithms dictated the topics, but the reality is more complicated. Former employees revealed that Facebook blacklisted certain topics and sources (namely conservative ones), boosted topics that weren’t actually trending, and asked writers who drafted the blurbs to make some Orwellian language changes, like renaming Twitter and Snapchat “social networks.”
It’s a bad look for Facebook, which has done all it can to retain a neutral reputation—even Mark Zuckerberg’s daily costume of gray shirt, jeans, and running shoes suggests impartiality. The ubiquity of the social network means that it has approached, if not surpassed, Google levels of utility for the average internet user. If Facebook is indeed “eating the internet” like so many headlines have claimed, it needs to be seen as a tool just like web browsers, unswayed by political leanings or business interests.
News complicates that requirement. As the media industry has learned time and time again, maintaining a reputation for objectivity can be a fool’s errand—no matter what you put on the front page, someone somewhere is going to think you’re ignoring the real story.