Commentary

Attacks On Campbell Brown Beg For More Facebook Transparency

Facebook this week defended top news executive Campbell Brown after she was targeted in a published report that questioned her political biases. While the story didn't prove that Brown personally oversaw the editorial management of a website she cofounded, it did highlight Facebook's lack of transparency with its own news platform.

Liberal newsletter Popular Information this week questioned Brown's involvement in The 74, a nonprofit education policy website she cofounded before joining Facebook as head of news partnerships two years ago. The newsletter highlighted The 74's attacks on Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts who is running for president, including an op-ed that described her as "the second coming of Karl Marx."

Popular Information was founded by Judd Legum, who also started the now-defunct liberal website ThinkProgress and was Hillary Clinton's research director during her 2008 presidential campaign. Legum argues that The 74's negative stories about Warren are part of a broader pattern of hostility that Facebook has shown toward the candidate, a frequent critic of the social network's power to sway public opinion.

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Legum cites a leaked recording of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who this year said in an internal company meeting that it would "suck" if Warren were president. In March, Warren called for a breakup of Facebook that would undo the company's acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram, two of the most popular mobile apps worldwide.

Brown, a former anchor at NBC and CNN, responded to Legum's story in a series of tweets that said she has been transparent about her involvement with The 74, where she is on the board of directors and has no editorial role.

She also said the nonprofit isn't part of Facebook News — and that The 74's negative pieces about Warren were labeled as opinion. Facebook didn't respond last week to Legum's questions about The 74, "because it was pretty clear that accuracy wasn't a big priority," she said.

Dozens of Twitter users lambasted Brown's response, pointing out that Facebook hasn't prioritized accuracy much either. The social network is notoriously rife with fake news, hate speech and divisive political propaganda.

The fuss over Brown's connection to The 74 shows how Facebook's growing role as a publisher opens the social network to criticism of bias — a charge leveled at every news organization. 

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

The company last month debuted Facebook News as a central hub to showcase stories from established media organizations, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

But Facebook News is hardly an antidote to fake news, given its own lack of transparency. It's not clear who works for Facebook News other than Anne Kornblut, the former deputy national editor of The Washington Post who oversees its curation effort.

Curation adds little value to news production, and is most easily replaced with an algorithm. Facebook News's editors must know they're in dead-end jobs. Meanwhile, they are given disproportionate power to control what millions of people see on its platform — and deserve greater scrutiny.

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